Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Chess Players by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1853)

We finish would look at the works of Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) with this treasure from 1853, The Chess Players.  This small scale painting (just 9.5x12.5 – slightly larger than the paper in your printer) is quite terrific.  One of the more interesting things about this picture, to my mind, is how Meissonier plays again and again with patterns.

A chessboard has a specific pattern – fair enough. But then see how he buffets this with square shapes representing the ornate room divider, the tapestries, and various pictures scattered about the room.  Also interesting is how he places his major players in the picture – the player on the left poised for attack, the player on the right hesitant, the sleeping dog and table with decanter standing off to the side like unused pieces in a game.  Here is composition as strategy, and it illustrates the keen eye Meissonier had for placement and his very conscious selection of components of a picture.

One of the other fascinating things about this work, when seen opposite some of his other pictures, is the lack of detail.  To be sure the chairs, the clothes, the tables and the dog are all depicted with a photographic sensibility, but Meissonier chooses to uncharacteristically wash-out some of the background detail.  We have only a sense of the tapestries, room divider and surrounding pictures.  I think, though, that this is in keeping with Meissonier’s overall approach to the picture: the “board” is less important than the psychology of the major “pieces.”

Unlike contemporary artists, Meissonier believed in that fine art helped make for a better citizenry.  He wanted art to be an elevating experience, filled with the grandeur of history and the lessons found in heroic deeds.  He consciously spent the later part of his life painting scenes of Napoleonic glory.  Executed with the same fine brushwork and acute attention to detail as his earlier subjects, these scenes from the great days of the French Empire eventually made Meissonier’s works the highest-grossing, most sought-after paintings of any living artist. The largest and most-ambitious of these works, finished in 1875, was Friedland (see below), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It sold for 380,000 francs, more than triple the highest price ever paid for a painting by a living artist.  Unlike his smaller works, Friedland was a large-scale picture which took the artist 14 years to complete.  It is considered by many to be his masterpiece, but I much prefer his smaller, more intimate pictures. 

It is interesting to contrast a picture like The Chess Players with Friedland.  Though both pictures are composition-as-strategy, and involve participation in a game of war, the smaller picture has a warmth, humanity and … sensitivity missing from the larger work.  Perhaps depictions of simple people, living their lives, is the most elevating artistic goal of all.

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