We continue our look at some of the work by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) with The Card Players, painted in 1872. This is a smallish picture, 12x15, and it possesses all the Meissonier trademarks of wit and technical wizardry.
People looking to learn more about Meissonier would do well to read The Judgment of Paris, by Ross King. (We positively reviewed King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling some time back.) While pointing out that Meissonier was one of the great losers in art history because his reputation suffered drastically following the rise of Impressionism, Modernism and other “progressive” modes of art that ultimately proved to be our aesthetic, intellectual and cultural downfall, King also rendered the painter as sympathetic and unjustly neglected (and denigrated) by later generations of art historians.
Here is how King opens his book: One gloomy January day in 1863, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, the world’s wealthiest and most celebrated painter, dressed himself in the costume of Napoleon Bonaparte and, despite the snowfall, climbed onto the rooftop balcony of his mansion in Poissy… Ernest Meissonier had occupied the Grande Maison for most of the previous two decades. In his forty-eight year he was short, arrogant and densely bearded: “Ugly, little and mean,” one observer put it, “rather a scrap of a man.” A friend described him as looking like a professor of gymnastics, and indeed the burly Meissonier was an eager and accomplished athlete, often rising before dawn to rampage through the countryside on horseback, swim in the Seine, or launch himself at an opponent, fencing sword in hand. Only after an hour or two of these exertions would he retire, sometimes still shod in his riding boots, to a studio in the Grande Maison where he spent ten or twelve hours each day crafting on his easel the wonders of precision and meticulousness that had both made his reputation and his fortune.
Makes the contemporary art world of Damien Hirsts and Tracey Eims seem bloodless and pusillanimous by comparison, doesn’t it? Ah, at one time the romance of being an artist!
Today’s picture, The Card Players, shares many of the same virtues as yesterday’s picture, The Sergeant’s Portrait. Both take place in front of brick buildings, complete with windows that are rendered in astonishing detail and realism. (I especially like the open window, visible through the length of the building from the foreground window!) Note, too, the ornate carving of the chairs, the tabletop and supports, and the careful delineation of the window shutters and sills.
Again, Meissonier takes particular delight in the clothing of his figures. Folds of garment, buttons, gauzy cravats and boots are all depicted with great virtuosity and realism without seeming fussy or showy.
But again where Meissonier triumphs is in directing his actors of paint and canvas. It is clear that that hatless figure on the left has not only lost this game of cards, but that he has lost a great many others previously. He looks at his opponent with disbelief, sullen resentment and resignation. Meissonier also places a glass beside him, and a tankard near his hat – implying that he was drinking, as well. (Is it my imagination, or does resemble the late Boris Karloff?)
His opponent has clearly had better luck with the cards, and gleefully is about to splay them upon the table. And look at his face: not only a note of triumph, but the gloating that often comes when we have someone in our power. It is not a pretty picture of human nature, but it is a masterful painting.
More Meissonier tomorrow!