Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Sergeant’s Portrait by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1874)

After our recent survey of works by Leon Cogniet (1794-1880), I thought it would be interesting to look at some pictures by his most successful student, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891). 

Meissonier was born in Lyons, and showed a taste for painting during his early boyhood.  Some of his surviving sketches from 1823 show considerable promise; but his family still placed him with a druggist so he could learn a trade. After a while, he managed to obtain leave from his parents to study art, and thanks to a recommendation from painter Jules Potier, he was admitted to Leon Cogniet’s studio. He paid short visits to Rome and to Switzerland, and exhibited in the Salon of 1831 a picture then called Les Bourgeois Flamands --also known as The Visit to the Burgomaster. It was the first attempt in France in the particular genre which was destined to make Meissonier famous:  miniatures in oils.

Meissonier started working for various publishers, producing highly finished illustrations, while also working on pictures for the Salon (appearing in 1836 with The Chess Players and The Errand Boy). 

Meissonier dabbled unsuccessfully in religious painting, a genre he never really mastered.  But he continued to paint – and his work found great favor with the European public, making him one of the most successful (and wealthiest) painter of his generation.  In 1855 he reached the highest mark of his achievement with The Gamblers and The Quarrel, which was presented by Napoleon III to the English Court.  During the Salon of 1857 he exhibited nine pictures and drawings.

Meissonier was a slow worker, sometimes taking as long as 10 years on a canvas.  Despite his painstaking craftsmanship, he managed to create an astonishing number of pictures: for example, he exhibited 16 pictures to the great exhibition of 1878.

Meissonier eventually moved away from the Salons and sent his work to smaller exhibitions. He made huge amounts of money, and, more important, significant social and political connections.  In 1838, Meissonier married into an artistic family.  He was attached by Napoleon III to the imperial staff, and accompanied him during the campaign in Italy and at the beginning of the war in 1870.  During the siege of Paris in 1871, Meissonier was named a colonel of a marching regiment. In 1840 he was awarded a third-class medal and a second-class medal in 1841; these followed by first-class medals in 1843 and 1844 and medals of honor at the great exhibitions. In 1846 he was appointed knight of the Legion of Honor and later received the Grand Cross in 1889.  And if you doubted that he was the most successful painter of his time – he would have been the first to correct you. 

Today’s picture is not that small – 24x28 – but it does show all of Meissonier’s considerable skill.  Many in today’s contemporary art establishment would say that The Sergeant's Portrait, painted in 1874, was kitsch, but they would be wrong.  Here is a painting of considerable skill, created by a master of composition and with a fine sense of humor. 

Gad … I like this picture.  First off, it shows how seat-of-the-paints informal portraiture of the era truly was.  Artists – or friends and family members with some ability – were often huddled over chairs, trying to capture a likeness.  I particularly like the look of strained concentration of the artist’s face – something you will see on the face of anyone working on a picture.  (Contrast his intensity to the two rather bored, but still judgmental, soldiers looking over his shoulder on the right hand side of the painting, and with the two on the left hand side who are standing by expectantly!  And see the completely disinterested participant, leaning against the wall and idly smoking – a wonderful touch.) 

Perhaps the two figures that make the picture most amusing are those of the model and the dog.  The model stands, hands on hips, knees bents, and perhaps a bit impatient.  The dog, however, looks up at him … wondering just what that fellow he’s looking at is about to do.

Meissonier worked in a manner that prized high finish and depth of detail.  Look, for example, at the brickwork of the building in the background: bits of mortar and subtle gradation of color are evident.  The cobblestones show considerable virtuosity, and I am deeply impressed by the level of detail on the soldiers’ uniforms.  This is a picture that is smart, funny, and brilliantly executed.

More Meissonier tomorrow!

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