Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Ernest Meissonier
French painter, b. at Lyons 21 February,1815; d. at Paris, 31 January, 1891. If the Lyonese genius in painting is found in such artists as Chenavard, Flandrin, Puvis de Chavannes, and in such landscape painters as Ravier, Meissonier does not belong to this family. At an early age his parents took him to Paris where they set up chemical works in the Marais. A family friend introduced him to the much frequented studio of Leon Cogniet (1794-1880). His first efforts date from 1831. These are portraits, generally busts, of the bourgeois of the neighbourhood (there is one at the Louvre), life-size, and somewhat commonplace in execution. At the Salon of 1834 there appeared a more significant picture, the "Visit to the Burgomaster's", three middle-class Hollanders in eighteenth century costume, seated at a table and smoking. Herein the painter for the first time attempted those small genre subjects in costumes of the past whose pleasing picturesqueness was to contribute so much to his fame. But fame was to be delayed for ten years Meissonier has to earn his living by illustration; and so he made vignettes for a number of works to-day much sought after as "romantic editions", "Paul et Virginie", Lamartine's "Chûte d'un Ange" (1839), "Le Vicaire de Wakefield", and "Les Français peints par eux-mêmes" (1840- 42). By degrees, however, the young artist attracted attention. Between the "classicists", or partisans of Ingres and the "romanticists" ardent followers of Delacroix, he found favour with a public rather indifferent to the quarrels of the schools and very willing to become acquainted with a style of art which did not require so much thought. In fact Meissonier seems to have quite ignored these great movements. A contemporary of many artistic controversies, e.g. the renovation of art by the school of Barbizon and the wonderful naturalistic revolution inaugurated by Paul Huet, Carot, and Rousseau, he seems a stranger to all these interests and passions.
There was on the other hand a small genre school to-day somewhat forgotten, that of Eugène Isabey, Eugène Lami, Célestin Nanteuil, and the brothers Johannot, which was occupied with representing small scenes of manners in the quaint every-day costume of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. They were pleasing extemporizers, skillful and brilliant story-tellers who put on canvas, often with spirit, the historic bric-a-brac popularized by Walter Scott. To this important school Meissonier attached himself. But he did so in a very original manner, bringing with him individual methods, aims, and talents, which marked him out among his contemporaries. He was obviously inspired by the Dutch, and he set himself to paint with the same composure, conscientiousness, and perfection as Terborch, Miéris, or Gérard Dow. It was a stroke of genius to choose as models these men who are among the best masters of painting, and this at a time when Romanticism had begun to overload its canvases with violence and excesses. Besides, these artists had been for a long time greatly esteemed by collectors, and by suggesting relationshup with them Meissonier increased his chances of success with amateurs. Moreover no other manner suited so well the special faculties of Meissonier, his extraordinary gift of observation and his almost absolute lack of imagination. But he was clever enough to restore genre painting and to blend imitation with invention, thus for Dutch subjects he substituted those of the Regency or of the sixteenth century. Above all he excelled in microscopic canvases, wherein the wonderful reproduction of the minutest details is a perpetual source of astonishment. In painting, the "finished" product is always sure to appeal to the philistine, and when found together with smallness, and when to the pleasure of accuracy is joined that of a feat of skill admiration knows no bounds. No more is needed to explain the incredible success of Meissonier.
In 1842 began that series of small thumb-nail pictures, the reputation of which so long outshone that of his larger works. First came "The Young Man playing the Bass-viol", then the "Painter in his studio" (1843), the "Guard-room", the "Readers", the "Smokers", the "Bravi" (1847), the "Reading at the House of Diderot" , the "Bowling-party", "La Rixe" or "The Quarrel" (1855). This year which marked the first Universal Exhibition marked also the apogee of Meissonier's triumphs. He was already the favourite painter of his tirne, he now became the most illustrious. He was compared with the classic artists and the masters of the genre, this was an exaggeration, and to-day we find much to criticize in him. His art dealt only with what had been already observed. It is regrettable that he did not make better use of his own gifts of observation; that he did not take his subjects directly from life, as did Daumier, instead of treating scenes of mere curiosity; that he did not create something "new" instead of giving us a modernized antique and giving his pictures the false appearance of a tableau de musée. This criticism is perhaps unjust; sixteenth century scenes have nothing better to show than "La Rixe" and "The Bravi"; and neither Stendhal nor Merimee is reproached for his Renaissance style of novels. Nevertheless it is true that despite superficial resemblances Meissonier is far inferior to the Dutch masters. To compare him with Terborch is to pay him too great an honour. His sharp facetted drawing, engraved with painful precision (cf. Fromentin, "Les Maitres d'autrefois", 1876, 228), his barren, dry painting, swarming with trifles, without aim or restraint, his indefinite analysis of a host of insignificant objects, all grouped in the compass of an amazingly small space, go to make up a series of quaint harsh works, unattractive and useless, like those pieces of embroidery which distress us when we realize the immense waste of labour they give proof of. What is wanting in these pictures is that which constitutes the value of art, emotion and life.
In 1859 Meissonier was charged to paint the "Battle of Solferino" (Louvre). This was the beginning of a new series of works, which date from the Second Empire, and in which the artist undertook to celebrate the glories of the first Empire. Renouncing his small interiors and subjects of fantasy he attempted historical and open air subjects, movements of crowds and armies, and set himself the task of painting the great scenes of the imperial épopée. In 1864 he submitted his "1814" (Louvre); in 1867 his "Desaix to the Army of the Rhine"; next came "1805", "1807" (Metropolitan Museum, New York), and a large number of other military pictures. This style, which answered the public demand after the events of 1870, brought the artist increased popularity. For his "1814" Chauchard paid a million of francs. It is true that in these new subjects the artist displayed the same scrupulous conscientiousness of which he had given proof in his earlier manner. He painted from nature, even to the very sods of earth. To convey the impression of a broken road, he selected a corner of his garden, had it trampled by men and horses, had trucks and carts drawn over its and sprinkled the whole with flour to imitate melting snow. To paint Napoleon, he made use of the grey cloak and the very hat the emperor wore. But in spite of it all he falls short of the lithographs of Raffet with their prodigious mystery and their breath of the heroic.
What will last of these curious pictures is the fabulous amount of studies and sketches accumulated by the painter in preparation for his pictures. One is filled with respect before the mass of observations; there are drawings, studies of soldiers, of equipments, of horses, which are priceless documents. It is remarkable that nothing is more rare than an ensemble study, there is never more than a detail, a gesture a movement, a muscle, caught and reproduced with unheard of precision and strength, as by the surest and most infallible instruments. There is no other example - even if we count Menzel himself - of a similar power of analysis applied to the realm of facts. To unravel a detail from the confusion of nature Meissonier was without an equal. He had an eye constructed like the lens of a magnifying glass, or like the eye of a primitive man capable of registering thousands of sensations which our civilized retina no longer perceives. For example, he was successful in catching the movement of a running horse, which no one has been able to do since the caveman, and later the cinematograph confirmed the marvellous truth of his observations. Only everything remained for him in a fragmentary state. His was the eye of a myopic, the eye of a fly, cut like a crystal into millions of facets, the most astounding instrument known for decomposing everything into its elements, for seeing distinctly into the world of the infinitesimal, but this prodigious power of decomposition left him incapable of putting anything together again.
It is not astonishing that his "1807" cost him fourteen years of labour; he was no longer able to weld together his scraps, his extracts from nature. He scrutinized, rummaged, ransacked to infinity, and found himself powerless to give life to anything. He spoke truly when he wished to do nothing but design and when he dreamed of a picture which should be no more than a collection of sketches, of fragments and disconnected events, like the "Pensées" of Pascal, yet giving at the same time the shock and the sensation of life. The difference was, however, that the "Pensées" were to become a book. Meissonier, overwhelmed by his materials, never succeeded in producing a great work, and not even in giving the impression that he had clearly conceived one. So this man loaded with honours, wealth and glory, was perpetually unhappy and discontended. His pride and his suspicious sensitiveness were proverbial. This sickly self-love was the chief cause of the division among the French artists in 1889 when to the traditional Salon Meissonier opposed the Salon of the "Champ-de-Mars" or of the Société Nationale. This unreasonable consequences and introduced into the school the anarchical system which for twenty years has gone on developing.
Such was this eminent and most unfinished of artists, assuredly little deserving of the mark of honour paid him by erecting his statue in the Garden of the Louvre, but still less deserving of the unjust criticisms he has since had to bear in expiation of his great glory. He was in reality the victim no less than the product of a valuable faculty carried to hypertrophia and monstrosity. He may perhaps be more equitably judged by the less known portions of his work, in which his faculties for analysis and observation found their true use, as in the small portraits such as that of "The Younger Dumas" (Louvre), those of "Stanford" or "Vanderbilt", or again his small studies from nature as in his "Views of Venice" at the Louvre, and especially his peerless collection of drawings at the Luxembourg. If these are not a great work, or their author a great artist, they are at least the materials the remains or the fragments thereof. On 13 October 1838, he married Jenny Steinheil, who died in June, 1888; in August, 1890, he married Mlle Bezançon; he died 31 January, 1891, and after a Requiem Mass at the Madeleine, 3 February, 1891, he was buried at Poissy where a monument was erected to him in 1894.
GREARD, Meissonier (1897); GAUTIER, Les Beaux-Arts en Europe, II (1856); Salons (not collected in vols.): PLANCHE, Salons (1855); CHESNEAU, Les nations rivales dans l'art (1868); MICHEL, Notes sur l'art moderne (1896); BRETON, Nos peintres du siecle; ALEXANDRE, La Peintre militaire en France; MUTHER, Ein Jahrhundert franzosischer Maleri (1901).