Last year, I reviewed Brunelleschi’s Dome on this blog, and though I liked the content and the story, it was a bit difficult to follow at times for a non-engineer like me. I didn’t know if I’d select another of King’s books. But after visiting Paris, and the Musee D’Orsay, I was fascinated by the story of the Impressionists and how they achieved such successf. King’s book, The Judgment of Paris, is about that story and much more. It also tells of a time in Paris that overlaps with some of David McCullough’s book, “The Greater Journey,” also reviewed here.
I actually liked “Judgment of Paris” much more than “Brunelleschi’s Dome.” It could be that I read BD before visiting Florence and seeing the dome. I read this after visiting Paris and the d’Orsay, so at least I had seen some of these paintings up close. And though the book was about the rise about this style of painting, it was also about two individuals, Ernest Meissonier and Edouard Manet, and about Paris in the 1860s.
Meissonier was one of the most celebrated artists in Europe, painting the most detailed and perfect canvasses, almost replicating photographs. He enjoyed incredible success during his life, was wealthy beyond belief, and rarely worried about his station. Manet on the other hand struggled mightily to be successful. The book revolves around the annual Salon, where artists attempted to exhibit their canvasses, and the great controversies that developed as artists were denied entry or ridiculed.
Each Salon was covered like it was national news. It was. Thousands flocked to see the artwork, and the entire affair was very personal for the French. Much of French nationalism and culture centered around the Salon.
One of the most marvelous passages in the book is the description of the reaction to Manet’s “Olympia.” It’s a distinct window into society in Paris at the time–that a painting could arouse such emotion is hard for anyone to fathom in 2014. But then, it was the norm. Here’s King on the debut of Olympia:
“An atmosphere of hysteria and even fear predominated. Some spectators collapsed in “epidemics of crazed laughter” while others, mainly women, turned their heads from the picture in fright.”
It’s amazing to think about how Manet labored as a largely unappreciated artist when you reflect on how his work is viewed now. I kept thinking about how difficult it would be to pour your whole life into your work and not have it truly appreciated until you are gone. That’s basically the story of Manet. The converse is equally amazing: Meissonier lived his life at the top of his game. But in the long-run, his work is not thought of very highly at all. Is it better to live life knowing constant praise and recognition of your work, even though that praise will be fleeting? Or is it better to have a reputation that only grows and develops after you aren’t around to see it? A tough choice.
Another reason I liked this book was that it was fundamentally about cities. In the 1860s and 1870s, the Impressionists, as they would later be dubbed, interacted with one another, inspired each other and occasionally fought with one another. Monet and Manet started as rivals, but later ended up friends and colleagues. The beauty of this period of time in Paris was that all of these incredible artists were alive and working together in close quarters. They shared in each other’s brilliance and competitively pushed one another to do better. Monet described the conversations with Manet:
“Nothing could have been more interesting than our discussions, with their constant clashes of opinion. They kept our wits sharpened, encouraged us to press forward with our own experiments and gave us the enthusiasm to work for weeks on end.”
I went to hear another author speak recently who spoke about this phenomenon. Edward Glaeser wrote a book I was somewhat unkind to on this blog called The Triumph of the City. Glaeser’s speech was far more impressive than his book, and during his talk he repeatedly referenced his defense of cities as being in large part because when you put together smart and talented people in such close quarters, they can change the world. He referenced Detroit when cars were being built and Florence during the time of Brunnelleschi. To the list he could have easily added Paris in the decade King covers here.
This is truly one of the reasons people love the city of Paris. Because at so many times in history, brilliant people were concentrated in one place and had an incredible impact on art, culture, history and literature. It’s one of the reasons, as Glaeser points out, that cities are so important.
Thanks for reading.