A fluid, engaging account of how the conflicting careers of two French painters—the popular establishment favorite Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and the oft-reviled newcomer Édouard Manet—reveal the slow emergence of Impressionism and its new view of painting and the world.
King, a novelist (Domino, 2002, etc.) and art historian (Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, 2003, etc.), has crafted an exciting chronicle about political and cultural change. By shifting the light of his research from Meissonier (whose career is now at its nadir) to Manet (whose paintings now go for millions of dollars) and back again, the author illuminates an entire epoch. Many great characters in cultural history appear—Baudelaire, Zola, Henry James—not to mention the painters whose names are now Olympian. Delacroix, Monet, Cézanne, Rossetti, Renoir—they all strut a bit on King’s stage, as do political figures, most notably Napoleon III. The author does not neglect the military history of the period. There is a chapter-long narrative about the brutal Franco-Prussian War, during which Meissonier and Manet met while serving with the National Guard. (The war’s bloody aftermath earns another chapter.) During the protracted Siege of Paris both artists found time to sketch and eat increasingly unappetizing forms of protein. But King’s focus is on the art world—especially on the annual Salons, whose politics and popular reactions King thoroughly explores. Of great interest is the savage reception (including laughter and disgust and disdain—even from friends) that Manet endured year after year at the Salons. (He fought a feckless duel with one critic.) A weaker man might have considered another career.
King illustrates that the clash of ideas is even more exciting than the clang of swords.