John-Louis Ernest Meissonier – Part 2

The Siege of Paris in 1870 by Ernest Meissonier 1874

……………………Paris under siege, this time, not by its own people, but by the Prussians, as it was pictorially recorded in Meissonier’s 1884 painting, Le siège de Paris 1870-1871 [The Siege of Paris 1870-1871]. The event took place at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. During the siege Meissonier was colonel of a marching regiment. It is a painting which is part realism and yet partly allegorical. The central figure, standing in front of a tattered French tricolour flag, is that of Paris, draped in a black veil and a lion skin, and modelled by Meissonier’s wife. She stands above the ruined barricade. There is nothing glorious about the depiction, just a foreboding of hard times to come following the destruction of the city by the Prussian troops signified by the billowing clouds of ash emanating from the burnt-out buildings in the background. The work paints a picture of utter confusion as we see dead and dying soldiers lying on beds of palm leaves which were a symbol of martyrdom. Confusion abounds. Look at the man who lies against the skirt of Paris. This is the twenty-seven-year-old artist Henri Regnault. He was not killed during the siege but actually died in January 1871 at the Battle of Buzenval which was part of the Prussian offensive against the French and a precursor to the siege shown in this painting. Meissonier added him to the work to highlight the futility and waste of young and promising lives struck down by the conflict. Look carefully at the details of this work. To the right of the central character we see a woman holding up her dead baby to her husband. Further to the right we see a woman prostrating herself across the body of her dead husband and to the right of her we see an old man searching through the bodies in the hope of finding his son.

Napoléon III at the Battle of Solferino by Ernest Meissonier (1863)

The defeat to the Prussian army stayed in the minds of the French people and scenes from the war were common subjects for painters of the day. Most, like Meissonier, wanted to focus their depictions on the heroism of the French in defeat and offer some hope for the future.  In 1859, Meissonier was commissioned to paint the Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino. This was the beginning of a new series of works, which was to celebrate the glories of the first Empire. The Battle of Solferino took place on 24 June 1859 and resulted in the victory of the allied French Army under Napoleon III and Sardinian Army under Victor Emmanuel II and the defeat of the Austrian Army under Emperor Franz Joseph I. It was the last major battle in world history where all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs. Meissonier completed the work in 1863 and is now housed in the Louvre.

La Rixe (The Brawl) by Ernest Messonier (1855 )

In 1851 he produced a very popular genre painting entitled La Rixe (The Brawl). The painting was one of nine paintings by Meissonier that were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, where it was awarded the prestigious Grande Médaille d’Or by the critics. One special admirer of the work was Prince Albert, the Prince Consort and wife of Queen Victoria. It was originally acquired by Emperor Napoleon III for 25,000 francs and then presented to Prince Albert on 26 August 1855, his thirty-sixth birthday. Queen Victoria recalled the gift-giving event:

“…We lunched with the Emperor & Empress. Both most kindly gave Albert presents, the former a beautiful picture by Meissonier called “La Rixe”, the finest thing in the Exhibition, which Albert had been in such extacies over…”

It is now part of the Royal Collection. In the painting we see that a row has broken out in a tavern over a game of cards. A melee ensued, and the table has been overturned. The two men seen brawling are elegantly dressed in early seventeenth-century-style doublets and breeches, and are being restrained by their three fellow players, whilst a sixth person can be seen peeping around the door. What has made the drama more realistic is the way Meissonier has portrayed the twisting and straining of the figures as they battle for supremacy. Meissonier often made wax model figures when planning a composition, and he also owned a large collection of historical costumes and weaponry which he used as props. This work is a romanticised history painting conjuring up a swashbuckling scene from the past and has its counterpart in the novels of Alexandre Dumas, whose The Three Musketeers, which was published in 1844, became the most commercially successful French book of the nineteenth century.

Innocents and Card Sharpers (A Game of Piquet) by Ernest Meissonier (1861)

Playing cards featured in several paintings by Meissonier and often they have a hint of skulduggery as is the case in his 1861 work, Innocents and Card Sharpers (A Game of Piquet). The depiction is of two innocent and naïve youths sitting around a table along with a group of card sharps. The callow youths are unaware of their dubious company, but the atmosphere is tense as seen by the man on the right, standing behind them, keeps his hand on his sword whilst others keenly watch the cards and the players.

A Man in Black smoking a Pipe by Ernest Meissonier (1854)

The National Gallery in London has an oil on wood painting by Meissonier entitled A Man in Black smoking a Pipe which he completed in 1854. Meissonier painted numerous genre scenes with individuals in period costume. This is a typical example with the smoker shown in a modest interior with a tankard and a glass of beer. The wall behind is decorated with some unframed popular prints.

Le Voyageur by Ernest Meissonier (c. 1880’s) s
Statuette in wax, fabric and leather

Whereas most people will know of Meissonier as a painter less would realise that he was also a sculptor. The Musée d’Orsay has a fine example of his prowess as a sculptor – Le Voyager (The Traveller) which he completed in 1840. This wax sculpture measuring (HWD) 48 x 60 x 40cms depicts a man hunched over the neck of his horse, as he battles against the wind and lashed by the rain.  The Traveller is probably the most notable of all the statuettes made by Meissonier and one that exudes an air of romanticism. Look how Meissonier by the way in which he models the musculature of the horse and by doing so, has been able to amplify the power of the piece. This work by Meissonier is an example of verism, (the theory that rigid representation of truth and reality is essential to art), in the way that he used real fabric for the coat and leather for the reins. Meissonier said that he enjoyed modelling and almost always worked in wax because it was so malleable.  He commented:

“…It is instant burst of creativity… You cannot imagine how absorbing and exciting it is to make a model…”

Campagne de France (Napoleon and his staff returning from Soissons after the Battle of Laon), by Ernest Meissonier (1864)

Meissonier was probably best known for his military art and paintings depicting Napoleon Bonaparte and scenes from Napoleonic battles. He specialised in meticulous, small-scale military scenes. One of his most memorable works is Campagne de France, 1814 [Campaign of France, 1814] which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Although this is a military history painting, in comparison to the often-monumental paintings of this genre, it is small in size, measuring just 52 x 77cms.  It is an example of Historical Realism in art. There is no sign of glorified heroics. The riders are not crossing a stretch of virgin white snow but rather an unpleasant-looking muddied terrain. This is pictorial history recording Napoleon and his staff returning from Soissons after being defeated at the Battle of Laon in March 1814 by the Prussian troops of Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher. The whole scene uses subdued brown and grey tones, and with the exception of the fortitude that emanates from the isolated figure of Napoleon on his white horse, there is a sense of doubt and resignation felt by the officers and the troops.

Friedland 1807 by Ernest Meissonier (1875)

Countering that image of Napoleon in defeat, Meissonier’s completed his largest and most ambitious painting, Friedland 1807, which evokes one of the emperor’s greatest victories. The work measures 136 x 243cms and is currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Initially the work was bought “sight unseen” by the American department store magnate Alexander T. Stewart and later Judge Henry Hilton acquired the work at Stewart’s estate sale and in 1887 bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum. This work and the previous one, Campagne de France, 1814 were the only two paintings completed by Meissonier for his proposed cycle of five episodes in the life of Napoleon.

A General Officer by Ernest Meissonier

Meissonier produced very small meticulous paintings of military scenes and interiors as well as men in military uniforms such as his painting, A General Officer, which just measured 13 x 9cms. It depicts a General Officer in the army of Napoleon III. The painting, being in profile, shows off the military man wearing his grand military hat to its best advantage. The officer, dressed in white breeches and a blue jacket with gold epaulettes, stands in an upright pose with his hands behind his back. This type of meticulous painting by Meissonier is based on the style of seventeenth-century Dutch genre and still life paintings and they were greatly admired in his lifetime by both the public and the critics.

Advance Guard of an Army by Ernest Meissonier.

Another military miniature measuring 12 x 21cms is Advance Guard of an Army. In this work we see the advance guard of an army moving downwards along a path on a barren hillside. The column of troops is being observed by a solitary soldier on horseback at the top of the hill.  In the background on the far left we catch a glimpse of the sea. The overcast sky is plain and does not distract from the portrayal of the troop column. Once again Meissonier has used a low viewpoint to depict the movement of the horsemen and this technique lent itself well to Meissonier’s diminutive canvases, giving them a feeling of expansiveness in a small frame.

Street Scene near Antibes by Ernest Meissonier (1868)

In June 1868 Meissonier travelled to the south of France and stayed in Antibes. His desire to go to the Mediterranean coast was probably two-fold. Firstly he was interested in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte who had been imprisoned in Fort Carré, at Antibes and also when Napoleon returned from exile on the isle of Elba in 1815 he made landfall at Golfe-Juan along the coast from Antibes. The second reason for the visit was probably the excellent plein air painting conditions he would have had in Antibes.   Other plein air landscape painters would have talked to him about the conditions and have persuaded him to move away from his historical works and look to completing some landscape plein air work.

“…It is delightful to sun oneself in the brilliant light of the South instead of wandering about like gnomes in the fog. The view at Antibes is one of the fairest sights in nature.”

One such work he completed whilst there was his 1868 painting Street Scene near Antibes.

Napoleon and his Staff by Ernest Meissonier (1868)

Meissonier received many honours during his lifetime. In 1846 he was appointed knight of the Légion d’honneur and promoted to the higher grades in 1856, 1867, and 1880, eventually receiving the Grand Cross in 1889. One of his unfilled ambitions was to teach at the École des Beaux-Arts, but it never came to fruition. He also dabbled in politics but his attempts to be chosen as a deputy or made senator were never realised. When the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts was revitalized, in 1890, Ernest Meissonier was elected its first chairman, but he died shortly after the appointment.

Jean-Charles Meissonier, son of the artist, in Louis XIII costume by Ernest Meissonier

His son, Jean Charles Meissonier, also a painter, was his father’s pupil, and was admitted to the Légion d’honneur in 1889.

Statue of Meissonier at Parc Meissonier in Poissy (Yvelines), France

Meissonier’s wife died in June, 1888 and in August, 1890, he married Mlle Bezançon.   Meissonier died in Paris on 31 January 1891, just a few weeks short of his seventy-sixth birthday.  After a Requiem Mass at the Madeleine, on February 3rd 1891, he was buried at Poissy where a monument was erected to him in 1894.

Gassed by John Singer Sargent

Gassed by John Singer Sargent (1918)

My Daily Art Display painting for today follows the theme of yesterday’s offering.  Once again I am featuring a painting which highlights the savagery of war.  This is another realistic depiction of the horrors of war which are often badly received by people who prefer to just see depictions of glorious victories, heroic acts and the happy return of our fighting men.  Sadly these kinds of pictures give one a false impression of the reality of war and it is sad to think that some of us want to close our eyes to what a war really is about and the terrifying effect it has on those who have to fight for somebody’s cause.   My painting today is entitled Gassed and is by the American artist John Singer Sargent which depicts the horrors of the trench fighting in the First World War.  It is a massive painting measuring 231cms high and 611 cms wide (91 inches x 240 inches) and can be seen in the Imperial War Museum in London.

John Singer Sargent was an American painter.  His parents were Americans but he was actually born in Florence where the family had moved to as an aid to his mother’s health.   The family travelled extensively throughout Europe.   Sargent loved his country yet he spent most of his life in Europe.   He became one of the most celebrated portraitists of his time but at the very height of his fame as a portrait painter he decided to devote full time to landscape painting, water colours and public art.

In the early days he was schooled as a French artist, and was greatly influenced by the Impressionist movement, the Spanish master Velazquez, the Dutch master Frans Hals, and his art tutor, the French painter, Carolus-Duran.   He was the toast of Paris until the scandal of his Madame X painting at the 1884 Salon.    Sargent painted the portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, entitled Madame X, wearing a very risqué off the shoulder gown. It was also shockingly low-cut. Her mother asked him to withdraw the painting but he refused. Although, now it is acclaimed as his best work of art, it scandalised Paris society and he was widely criticised in Paris art circles for being improper. Sargent found the criticism unjustified and at the age of 28 he left Paris disillusioned by the incident and the fall off of sales of his paintings and moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life.  It was here that he reached the pinnacle of his fame.  It was thought that to have one’s portrait painted by Sargent was to have it painted by the best portraitist of the time.

In some ways it is disappointing to realise that as an artist he has sometimes been dismissed as he was never looked upon as being radical or a trend setter.  He was an artist who worked within known and accepted styles. He was a prolific painter, painting over 2000 watercolours. He was a very successful portraitist but labelled portraiture as “a pimp’s profession” and in 1907 he announced that he would paint “no more mugs” and with a few exceptions kept to his word. His new love was to paint landscape watercolours.

So today’s featured painting was very different to his normal works.  It is a scene Sargent witnessed in August 1918 at Le Bac du Sud on the road between the French towns of Arras and Doullens in the Somme area of Northern France.  We see a line of nine soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, being helped along a boarded path by two orderlies towards a medical station.  The medical post is out of sight to the right of the scene but we can make out the guy ropes which support the tent-like structure.   The line of men who struggle to make their way towards the tent are silhouetted against the golden sunset sky.  In the left background we can just make out some bivouacs and to the right we see another line of wounded men being led towards the medical facility.  The foreground of the painting is littered with the wounded lying at rest, many with their heads bandaged.

The setting of the painting reminds me of the war poem dealing with the horrors of mustard gas in the World War 1 trenches.  It was entitled Dulce et Decorum Est and was composed by the Great War poet Wilfred Owen:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum est, the title of the poem, are the first words of a Latin saying taken from an ode by Horace:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.

“How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.”

 The full saying ends the poem:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

(It is sweet and right to die for your country).

In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.    Sadly as the young men sang joyfully as they marched towards the trenches in Northern France, little did they know of their impending fate.  Ironically, for many people of the time who supported Britain and France’s war against the Germans the words had specific relevance.  The first line of Owen’s poem is inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst.

The Return from Inkerman by Elizabeth Thompson

The Return from Inkerman by Elizabeth Thompson (1877)

My Daily Art Display today is a war painting depicting the conclusion of the Battle of Inkerman and the British troops, or what was left of them marching back to camp.  The work of art was painted by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, the British female painter, who had attained celebrity status with her history paintings, and especially those depicting military conflicts involving British troops.

She was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1846 and at the age of thirteen, when she and her family lived in Italy, began to receive art tuition.  In 1862 she travelled to London where she enrolled in the Female School of Art which along with the National School of Art coalesced into the Royal College of Art in 1869.    In 1869, with the family now living in Florence she enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti which was the top-rated academy for drawing in the whole of Europe.  Her favoured art genre at the outset of her painting career was that of religious art and it was not until she went to Paris at the age of twenty-eight that this was to change.   In Paris she came across the works of Jean-Louis Meissonier the French Classicist painter who was famed for his works of art depicting Napoleon and his armies and other military scenes.  She also saw works by the military painter Édouard Detaille, who had been a pupil of Meissonier.  She was so enthused with their military paintings that she decided that in future this was to be her choice of art genre.

In 1873 she completed a work entitled Missing which depicted two wounded French officers during the Franco-Prussian War and which was the first of her paintings to be accepted by the Royal Academy.  The following year she exhibited a painting which was to be one of her most popular and made her a nineteenth century celebrity.  It was entitled The Roll Call and it depicted a scene from the Crimean War in which we see a battalion of the Grenadier Guards, many of who were wounded and exhausted, gathered around for the roll call so as to ascertain who had and who had not survived the latest battle.  The painting was shown around the art capitals of Europe and in doing so her fame as an artist spread throughout the continent.

In 1877 she married a Tipperary man, Sir William Francis Butler, who was an officer in the British army and who rose in the ranks to finally become a lieutenant-general.  This army life of her husband afforded Elizabeth, now Lady Butler, the opportunity to travel with him throughout the British Empire.  The couple went on to have six children but the burden of motherhood did not prevent her from painting many more military scenes.

When her husband retired from the army in 1905 the couple retired to Bansha Castle in Tipperary.  Her husband died in 1910 but she remained at Bansha until she was seventy-six years of age at which time she went to live with her youngest daughter.  She died in 1933 just a month short of her eighty-seventh birthday.

The featured painting today is entitled The Return from Inkerman by Elizabeth Thompson which she completed in 1877.  This was the final work of her quartet of paintings she did between 1874 and 1877 depicting scenes from the Crimean War.  The painting depicts a ragged column of exhausted soldiers trudging back to camp, many of who are wounded and are only just able to stand up.  Their commanding officer on horseback rides at the head of the column.  The men try to keep their heads held high as they pass fallen comrades who lie at the side of the road.  Their tattered uniforms remind us of the ferocity of the battle which has just concluded.  The battle took place on the heights of Inkerman where the Russians had mounted a counter-attack on the British forces.   The weather had been terrible during the battle with driving rain interspersed with thick fog making the commanding of the troops difficult for both sides.  This battle was one of many bloody encounters which occurred during the siege on the Russian town of Sebastopol in November 1854 and was part of the Crimean War campaign.  It was a ferocious battle and cost the lives of 2,500 British and 12,000 Russian troops.   In her painting the troops depicted are mainly from the Coldstream Guards and the 20th East Devonshire regiment.

While she never witnessed actual warfare, she was in Egypt for some years in the 1880’s with her husband and many of her pictures were drawn accurately using models in some cases, or observing soldiers on manoeuvres or practicing charges at Aldershot. To help with her paintings, the soldiers even re-enacted the battle in their original uniforms worn throughout the campaign.

There is a great sense of realism to this painting.  In it we see the men and their suffering.  However in some quarters this realism was too much to bear.  As would be the case now, the public did not want to be reminded of such sufferings on the battlefield.  For most of the public and the hierarchy of the Royal Academy they preferred more uplifting depictions of victorious battles and acts of heroism which would lift people’s spirits.  Many artists pandered to such wishes but as the French master of military paintings, Édouard Detaille, commented:

“…L’Angleterre n’a guère qu’un peintre militaire; c’est une femme…”

(England has only one military painter; and it is a woman)

However Elizabeth Thompson would not change her style and defended it in her 1922 autobiography, writing:

“…I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism…”

However she still had many supporters of her painting style.  Wilfred Meynell, the Victorian biographer, wrote in his book The Life and Work of Lady Butler:

“…Lady Butler has done for the soldier in Art what Mr. Rudyard Kipling has done for him in Literature – she has taken the individual, separated him, seen him close, and let the world see him…..”

The Daily Telegraph of the day wrote of Elizabeth Thompson’s great ability as a female military artist, writing:

“…Miss E. Thompson, a young lady scarcely heard of hitherto, with a modest, sober, unobtrusive painting, but replete with vigour, with judgement, with skill, with expression, and with pathos – such expression as we marvel at in Hogarth for its variety, such pathos as we recognize under the rough or stiff militarism of Horace Vernet – has shown her sisters which way they should go, and has approved herself the valiant compeer even of most famous and most experienced veterans of the line. To the unselect many, to the general public, Miss Thompson is as new as the Albert Memorial at Kensington; and it is for that reason that we hail her appearance with this honest, manly Crimean picture, as full of genius as it is of industry. We say that this sign is a wholesome one; because in every work of art-excellence executed by a woman, and commanding public acceptance and applause, we see a manacle knocked off a woman’s wrist, and a shackle hacked off her ankle. We see her enlarged from wasting upon fruitless objects the sympathies which should be developed for the advantage of humanity. We see her endowed with a vocation which can be cultivated in her own home, without the risk of submission to any galling tyranny or more galling patronage…”