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Title: Meissonier  - Masterpieces in Colour Series
Author: Barbusse, Henri, 1873-1935
Language: English
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Masterpieces in Colour

Edited by--M. Henry Roujon

MEISSONIER

(1815-1891)


       *       *       *       *       *

    _IN THE SAME SERIES_

    REYNOLDS            RUBENS
    VELASQUEZ           HOLBEIN
    GREUZE              BURNE-JONES
    TURNER              LE BRUN
    BOTTICELLI          CHARDIN
    ROMNEY              MILLET
    REMBRANDT           RAEBURN
    BELLINI             SARGENT
    FRA ANGELICO        CONSTABLE
    ROSSETTI            MEMLING
    RAPHAEL             FRAGONARD
    LEIGHTON            DÜRER
    HOLMAN HUNT         LAWRENCE
    TITIAN              HOGARTH
    MILLAIS             WATTEAU
    LUINI               MURILLO
    FRANZ HALS          WATTS
    CARLO DOLCI         INGRES
    GAINSBOROUGH        COROT
    TINTORETTO          DELACROIX
    VAN DYCK            FRA LIPPO LIPPI
    DA VINCI            PUVIS DE CHAVANNES
    WHISTLER            MEISSONIER
             MONTAGNA


    _IN PREPARATION_

    GEROME              BOUCHER
    VERONESE            PERUGINO
             VAN EYCK

       *       *       *       *       *

    [Illustration: PLATE I.--THE FLUTE-PLAYER

    (In the Musée du Louvre)

    Meissonier's erudition was such that it enabled him to combine
    the skill of the artist with the utmost fidelity in details of
    costume. In the _Flute-player_, the artist predominates. This
    figure, with foot slightly raised in the act of beating time, is
    admirably life-like.]


MEISSONIER

Translated from the French by Frederic Taber Cooper

Illustrated with Eight Reproductions in Colour



[Illustration: IN SEMPITERNUM.]

Frederick A. Stokes Company
New York--Publishers

Copyright, 1912, by
Frederick A. Stokes Company

[Illustration: May 1912]

The · Plimpton · Press
[W · D · O]
Norwood · Mass · USA



CONTENTS


                             Page
    Introduction               11
    Early Years                16
    First Success              30
    Etchings                   32
    Paintings                  36
    Military Paintings         61



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


    Plate                                             Page

       I. The Flute-Player                    Frontispiece
             In the Musée du Louvre

      II. Les Ordonnances                               14
             Tommy Thierry Collection, Musée du Louvre

     III. The Confidence                                24
             Chauchard Bequest, Musée du Louvre

      IV. 1814                                          34
             Chauchard Bequest, Musée du Louvre

       V. Awaiting                                      40
             In the Musée du Louvre

      VI. The Players at Bowls                          50
             In the Casa-Riera Collection

     VII. Amateurs of Paintings                         60
             In the Musée du Louvre

    VIII. Napoleon III at Solférino                     70
             Tommy Thierry Bequest, Musée du Louvre



INTRODUCTION


One day--it was neither in war time nor during manoeuvres--on a July
morning, with the sun shining radiantly, a squadron of cuirassiers
passed at full gallop across a magnificent field of ripening grain, in
the neighbourhood of Poissy, although on every side there were wide
reaches of fallow land and pasture.

When this hurricane of horses and men had, like a blazing meteor,
devastated and laid low the splendid gold of the crops, two men
remained behind, surveying the scene with visible satisfaction and
undisguised interest.

One of the two was tall and the other short. The tall man was Colonel
Dupressoir, who had directed the manoeuvre. The other, an elderly man,
short of leg, and ruddy of complexion, with a long beard, white and
silken, and a singularly expressive eye, was the painter, Meissonier.
The latter had achieved his object. Thanks to long insistence and the
payment of indemnities, he had brought about the passage of cavalry
across that field, in order that he might make studies from nature,
needed for a painting then in hand, _1807_, of how standing grain
looks after it has been crushed and trampled by the onrush of a
charge.

The whole artist, whose work we are about to study side by side with
his life, is summed up in this anecdote. It reveals one of the most
typical sides of his temperament, and, consequently, of his
talent: a constant and scrupulous endeavour, maintained even at the
price of sacrifices that would seem excessive to the layman, to
interpret nature precisely as she is. It was this noble ambition--and
we shall find other examples of it in the course of an artistic career
in which it was the dominant note--that made him say to his pupils,
with a conviction that commanded respect: "If I should sketch a horse
from memory I should feel that I had been guilty of an insult to
nature!"

    [Illustration: PLATE II.--LES ORDONNANCES

    (Tommy Thierry Collection, Musée du Louvre)

    Every one of Meissonier's pictures is a document which may be
    profitably consulted if one wished to decide a detail of costume
    or armament. His consciousness in this regard has become
    proverbial.]

And it is because he conceived his ideal after this fashion that this
unerring painter of so many military types and scenes never attempted
to picture skirmishes or battles. It was not that he did not want to,
or had not cherished the dream of doing so. But he had never seen a
battle; and a battle is a thing that cannot be reconstructed, like a
marching column or a detail of camp life. Accordingly he painted none,
because he decided, with a certain loftiness, _that he did not really
know what a battle was_!

Let us keep this attitude of mind before us, and even underscore it in
our memory. For this alone, in a vague way, would suffice to
characterize the artist with whom we are concerned; and his whole
long, rich, and fruitful career may be summed up as a successful and
varied application of one great principle: devout and inflexible
respect for reality.



EARLY YEARS


When Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier was born at Lyons in 1815, under the
fading light of an Imperial sunset, these were scarcely the ideas that
predominated in the national school of French art. Pictorial art, to
confine ourselves to that, had, both before and during the First
Empire, achieved at most a lumbering and trammelled flight; and the
influence of antiquity, so perceptible in the language as well as in
the manners and fashions at the close of the Eighteenth Century,
served only to confine the inspiration of artists more strictly within
the bounds of classic tradition. Roman characters, Roman costumes,
Roman virtues,--such was the ideal to which each debutant who did not
revolt openly must make surrender! To be sure, the commanding figure
of David gave a magnificent prestige to this rather cold and
dishearteningly classic programme. But, like all great artists, David
was exceptional; and he stands today as the only one who, in an epoch
sadly poor in genius, produced a host of living masterpieces, to swell
the lists of a school so artificial that it would now be forgotten,
save as an echo of his name. It is true that, by way of ransom, he
spent much time in painting vast canvases that today hold but a small
place in his life work.

On the threshold of the Nineteenth Century, in 1799, Eugène Delacroix
was born. It was he who brought a new spirit into French painting and,
single-handed, wrought a great revolution.

Such is not destined to be the rôle of Meissonier! His was neither so
tragic a struggle, nor so immense a triumph. Unlike Delacroix, he did
not restore the Beautiful nor hand down new forms to glory. He
succeeded none the less in inscribing his name in modest yet precise
characters--that will long remain legible--upon the marble of the
temple.

How did the artist get his start? According to the monotonous and
mournful formula, "after a hard struggle." The lives of all beloved
and admired artists have this in common with fairy tales: they always
begin badly and end happily (unluckily, they sometimes end a long time
after the death of the principal hero!).

The father of Meissonier was a dealer in colonial products and
chemicals, and kept a drug and provision shop in the Rue des Ecouffes.
Beneath the low ceiling of this shop and between walls lined with
drawers, bearing strange labels, the childhood of Jean-Louis-Ernest
was passed. His mother was a fragile woman. We are told further that
she was sensitive to music and that she had learned to paint on
porcelain and to make miniatures.

Are we at liberty to attribute to the tender and brief contact of that
mother, who died so young, with the life of her child, the origin of
his artistic vocation? It is pleasant at least to fancy so and to try
to believe it, even though we are told that parents bequeath to their
children, not a vocation--a mysterious gift, of unknown origin--but
rather a certain number of necessary aptitudes and qualities, which
will enable them to profit by the gift, if perchance it falls to them
from Heaven.

Yet the fact remains that in the depths of a cupboard, in the house on
the Rue des Ecouffes, there lay the paint-box which Mme. Meissonier
once used, while taking miniature lessons from the authoritative hands
of Mme. Jacottot. As joyously as other children would have
appropriated a jar of jam, the boy possessed himself of the magic box,
and on that selfsame day entered, with stumbling fingers, upon the
laborious mission which was destined to cease only with his life.

He was not a very good student. A report has been preserved of his
standing in a school in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, at Paris, where
his later childhood was passed. In this document the proper
authorities alleged that the pupil, Ernest Meissonier, showed "too
marked a tendency to draw sketches in his copy-books, instead of
paying attention to his teachers."

The said tendency did not fail to awaken anxiety in M. Meissonier, the
father. It should be remembered that, for some years previous, the
question of painting in France had been taking on a rather bitter
tone. The romantic school was entering boldly into the lists, and
among its champions were some who distinguished themselves less by
their works than by their long beards and the public challenge they
flung at their traditional enemy, the phalanx of David's pupils. And
among the latter, it must be owned, the majority made no answer beyond
a disdainful silence and some mediocre paintings,--with just one
single exception: the admirable, undoubted, impeccable exception of
the great Jean-Dominique Ingres.

The press, the art clubs, not to mention the salons, were all more or
less divided between the romantics and the classicists, the innovators
and the traditionalists, and fanned the flames of a quarrel which, in
view of the worth of the two leaders--one of whom spelled genius and
the other perfection--was destined to appear without sanction to the
eyes of posterity.

But, as may be imagined, these tumultuous polemics were not calculated
to reassure a thoroughly pacific bourgeois, already much alarmed to
find that he had begotten an artist. And just at this crisis another
damnatory report exploded, this time from a master of the eighth form
in a school on the Rue de Jouy: "Ernest has a decided talent for
drawing. The mere sight of a picture often takes our attention from
our serious duties." This diagnosis, so categoric underneath its
familiar form and somewhat faulty grammar, sounded a serious cry of
alarm. It was promptly heeded by the father, and young Ernest was
forthwith entered as a druggist's apprentice, in a house on the Rue
des Lombards.

Yet it was not long afterwards, thanks to a dogged persistence, that
the lad had overcome paternal opposition and was allowed to do head
studies in charcoal, at the studio of a certain Julien Petier, whose
slender artistic fame rested solely upon the fact that, once upon a
time, he won the _grand prix de Rome_.

Meissonier very shortly quitted this somewhat dull discipline, and he
stayed scarcely longer in the studio of Léon Cogniet, which at that
time was quite celebrated. Yet during the four months that he remained
under the guidance of the worthy author of _The Four Seasons_, it must
be admitted that he laboured greatly to the profit of his art.

M. Phillippe Burty, his contemporary and his first biographer,
explains to us that, while at Cogniet's, young Meissonier did not work
like the other students, from casts or nude models: "He passed his
days in an enclosure adjoining the studio, where the master was
engaged upon his ceiling painting for the Louvre, the _Expedition into
Egypt_, and hired by the day soldiers in republican uniform, dragoons,
artillerymen and their horses." In the midst of this resurrection of a
past that was still quite recent, in the very presence of the stage
setting, the reproduction of the Napoleonic Epic, he suddenly
conceived of it as the greatest of all subjects that might tempt his
accurate artist fingers. It must have seemed to him, later on, that he
himself had witnessed its close.

    [Illustration: PLATE III.--THE CONFIDENCE

    (Chauchard Bequest, Musée du Louvre)

    This painting, given to the Louvre in 1908 by M. Chauchard, is
    one of the most beautiful in that famous collection, owing to
    the incomparable naturalness of the attitudes, as well as to the
    finished art of its composition.]

But while waiting to achieve his dream, he had to achieve a living.
This was not easy. His father spared him an allowance of fifteen
francs a month, not counting the privilege of dining at home once a
week, and from time to time allowed himself to be cajoled into buying
a small aquarelle.

Be one's tastes never so modest, it is difficult under such conditions
to make both ends meet, and there was many a day of sacrifice and
privation for the future painter of canvases destined later to sell
at a hundred thousand francs per square decimeter. He shared his
poverty light-heartedly with a chosen circle of friends whose fame in
after years has made their names familiar: among others Daumier, the
caricaturist, and Daubigny, the great landscape painter, with whom, it
is told, Meissonier collaborated in manufacturing for the export trade
canvases that were generously paid for at five francs a meter!

He was unable to enter the classes of Paul Delaroche, the monthly
charge for admission to the studio from which _The Princes in the
Tower_ had issued reaching the exorbitant sum of twenty francs! He had
to content himself with frequenting the Louvre.

Unlooked-for windfall: in company with his friend Trimolet, a needy
artist who succumbed to poverty before his real talent had had time to
ripen, he obtained an opportunity to decorate fans. Then, some
religious figures and emblems of saints for certain publishers in the
Rue Saint-Jacques. This meant the assurance of an honest living; they
could go to a restaurant twice a day, every day in the week, and
proudly pass the paint-shop knowing their account was paid.

When only sixteen years of age, Meissonier exhibited for the first
time. As a matter of fact his name appears in the Salon catalogue of
1834, accredited with _A Visit to the Burgomaster_. In this picture
one may find, I will not say _in miniature_ (since all his paintings
were destined to be contained in narrow limits) but in a youthful way,
an indication of those qualities of relief and of realism which so
energetically stamped his productions later on.

Is there any need of saying that the public failed to distinguish a
work which did not sufficiently distinguish itself?

The first connoisseurs to pay attention to the newcomer were editors,
the severe and imposing editors.

Not quite at the start, naturally; and the first instalment of
illustrations that he offered to a magazine then famous, the name of
which is now forgotten--four little sepia drawings--was curtly
rejected. But he refused to be discouraged, and not long afterwards
deliberately made his way to the celebrated art-publisher, Curmer.
This bold venture went badly at the start. The publisher, rendered
distrustful by so youthful and importunate a face, assured the young
man and the friend who had introduced him, that "for the time being he
had nothing for him."

But by a providential hazard, the short conversation which followed as
a matter of civility before leave-taking touched upon the subject of
life-masks. At that time life-masks happened to be quite the rage:
people had their faces moulded in plaster just as nowadays they sit
for a photograph; and young Meissonier related, not without vanity,
that on the preceding Sunday he had taken the mask of the Johannot
brothers, and he added that he knew those two princes of engraving
quite intimately.

Famous acquaintances are always useful; the proof of this is that M.
Curmer accepted an invitation to go the following Sunday to
Meissonier's studio, to sit for his life-mask,--and, once there, it
was impossible for him not to order an aquarelle.

The door of this publishing house, however, was as yet only half-way
open to the artist; for when his friend Marville, "an etcher in
soft-ground, mediocre but prolific," talked of having him collaborate
on the Curmer edition of _Paul and Virginia_, the publisher, a prey
once more to his original distrust, entrusted him to begin with,--with
just one of the special illustrations,--to re-engrave!

Meissonier acquitted himself brilliantly of this half-task, with the
result that he was entrusted with several other illustrations for the
celebrated edition of _Paul and Virginia_, of which no bibliophile can
ever speak without enthusiasm. But, on the other hand, he had an
entire series to make for an edition, no less sumptuous, of _The
Indian Cabin_, also a work of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.



FIRST SUCCESS


And then, in the words of one of his contemporaries: "The first rays
of fame that caressed him streamed from those admirable and diminutive
drawings for _The Indian Cabin_. He had done much sketching in the
Jardin des Plantes, in the conservatories, where the flora of the
tropics expanded opulently; also, before the windows of those shops of
bric-a-brac, abounding in exotic objects, which in those bygone days
stretched in a row facing the entrance to the Louvre, on the Place du
Carrousel. All that he had to do was to rummage among those sketches
in order to give his composition an inimitable stamp of truth, such as
was seldom attempted by illustrators of his nation. It was a simple
thing to convert into an ornamental letter a storm-broken lily, a
group of Indian weapons, some Javanese musical instruments. If the
text called for the 'emblems of mental toil,' the young artist heaped
his table with volumes bound in parchment or full calf, acquired for
a few sous from the stands along the quays, and he had only to copy,
with all the naïveté of the Primitives, the gleam of the edges, the
bands on the backs, the slips of paper alternating with the silken
bookmarks."

And the critic proceeds to cite an example of that "prodigious finish"
which Théophile Gautier subsequently recognized as the most _popular_
characteristic, so to speak, of his noble talent: "In two of these
miniature vignettes, measuring less than four centimetres, two
engravings can be made out, hanging upon a library wall; one of them
interprets quite scrupulously _The Pariah thinking of the English
Doctor_, and the other _The English Doctor thinking of the Pariah_.
Between these engravings can be made out, hanging on a nail, and
possessing all the characteristics described in the text, _the pipe of
English leather, the mouthpiece of which was of yellow amber, and that
of the Pariah, the stem of which was of bamboo and the bowl of
terra-cotta_."

The success of this _de luxe_ edition was rapid and important. The
first step along the path of glory was taken,--and on that path the
first step costs more than anywhere else. Henceforth, no more need of
soliciting work; far otherwise. The artist still continued to do
illustrating. Mention must be made of the drawings that he did for
_Frenchmen Painted by Themselves_, and later--here ends this chapter
of his artistic career--the plates that served as illustrations for
_The Fallen Angel_, by Lamartine (edition in two volumes, already
unobtainable twenty years ago), and the _Contes Rémois_, by M. de
Chevigné; this last series bears date 1858.



ETCHINGS


Let us add, for the sake of being complete, without wasting undue
space upon side-issues, that Meissonier also experimented in etching.
Authoritative critics assert that these attempts, in which the master
modestly refused to see anything more than "essays," will eventually
become "the most precious treasures that bear his signature."

    [Illustration: PLATE IV.--1814

    (Chauchard Bequest, Musée du Louvre)

    This picture, so masterly and so dramatic in composition, is
    assuredly one of the most widely known in existence. The sombre
    visage of the Emperor, the severity of the landscape, the
    prevailing tone of sadness, admirably rendered, explain the wide
    favour enjoyed by this celebrated work, further popularized in
    engravings.]

Besides, with one exception,--_The Smoker_, popularized by a large
printing,--they are quite limited in number, and already eagerly
sought after by collectors. And with all the more reason, because, at
the fairly distant period of which we speak, the perfected processes
for preserving the burined lines on the copper plate in all their
original fineness and precision had not yet been invented;
accordingly, the later proofs in his series of etchings betray a
wearing of the copper which could not fail to lower their value. At
the time of Meissonier's death, a proof of _The Preparations for the
Duel_, in which the signature was legible, "in the lower left corner,"
brought upward of one thousand francs.

The most beautiful of all Meissonier's etchings are, without question:
_The Violin_, which he engraved with a burin at once powerful,
delicate and, as some critics phrase it, "vibrant," to adorn the
visiting card of the celebrated lute player, Vuillaume; _The Signor
Annibale_, representing, in braggadocio pose and costume, the
celebrated actor, Régnier, of the Comédie-Française, in a rôle that is
by no means the least celebrated in Augier's _Adventuress_; and _The
Troopers_, seven figures whose personalities stand out rather
curiously and exhibit a picturesque diversity.

_The Reporting Sergeant_ was a miniature sketch made, in order to try
the ground, on the margin of the plate on which _The Smoker_ was
etched. It is a finished and charming little work, full of expression,
of life and actuality, condensed into a microscopic square of paper.

But what of his paintings? We left them for a time, in order to clear
up certain points regarding Meissonier's incursion into the realm of
the engraver,--an incursion from which he brought back, incidentally,
both fame and fortune.



PAINTINGS


He profited from it above all in being able to continue to paint. For
the fact remains that, from the time of his youngest efforts, such as
_The Patrol Removing a Body from an Outpost_, his earliest known work,
one of the collection that his father bought, to swell somewhat that
famous monthly income of fifteen francs, he never abandoned his
brushes.

We left him unsuccessfully exhibiting, at the Salon of 1834, a small
painting, dealing with a Flemish subject. Let us add, as a final word,
that this _genre_ picture was accompanied by an aquarelle, entered in
the catalogue of that date as: _Soldier to Whom in the Citizen's
House, a Young Girl serves a Mug of Beer_. This aquarelle was
purchased for one hundred francs by the Society of Friends of Art.

The following year he did not exhibit. This, unfortunately, was not
because he had nothing to offer; but the pictures that he sent,
consisting of _The Chess Players_ and _The Little Messenger_, had not
been accepted by the jury. There was an excess of severity in this
refusal; and in spite of the fact that the candidate for admission
was still under the age of twenty, the two pictures offered possessed
certain genuine qualities that rendered the sentence of the jury
cruelly unjust.

Such was the opinion of the artist, who in 1836 offered the same
pictures over again; it was also the opinion of the jury of that year,
for it accepted them.

Two years later, Meissonier exhibited a _Monk Consoling a Dying Man_.
This canvas attracted the attention of the Duke of Orleans, who bought
it for five hundred francs. (Fourteen years later, at the sale
consequent upon the Duke's death, this same _Monk_ was resold for
4,000 francs.)

In 1839, Meissonier attracted the attention of the critics. For
example, you may find in a paper called _L'Artiste_, in a critique of
the Salon: "And I almost forgot an adorable little _English Doctor_,
by M. Meissonier, a charming miniature in oil, extraordinarily fine
and subtle." These lines were signed by Jules Janin, who at that time
maintained over French criticism a sort of sacerdotal sovereignty,
comparable only to that which, so far as the national school of
painting was concerned, was afterwards held by the artist whom Janin
then heralded with an almost exaggerated cordiality.

    [Illustration: PLATE V.--AWAITING

    (In the Musée du Louvre)

    This painting, which is frequently confused with another by the
    same artist, entitled _The Man at the Window_, is chiefly
    noteworthy for its finished detail and prodigious ability of
    execution. Meissonier herein reveals his profound understanding
    of the principles of chiaroscuro.]

But the small size of Meissonier's pictures! That is the one thing
that, for the world at large, contemporaries and posterity alike, is
the keynote of his talent: "Meissonier has always painted on such a
small scale!" That is what one would begin by saying, if one wanted to
explain him, to reveal him to some one who did not know him. And what
endless things have been said in addition, by way of praise,
criticism, and discussion, regarding the scantiness of the canvases or
panels to which the artist applied himself!

Underlying this whole matter of smallness there is, without any
paradox, a rather big question. Beyond doubt, material dimensions in
works of art are not taken into consideration, so long as these
dimensions remain within moderation. It is equally certain that, short
of introducing revolutionary modifications into our aesthetic creed,
we would refuse to accept as a work of art anything that exceeded too
far these limits of moderation, or fell too far below them. Is it not
the same in life and in society, where exaggerated giants and
undersized dwarfs find that they are outcasts, each in his own way,
outside the common law, and regarded simply as curiosities?

Granted: but what is the limit? Does Meissonier surpass it, and are
his pictures _too small_?

Very well, let us answer categorically: no! No, they are not too
small, considering, first of all, their subject; secondly, their mode
of presentment, their composition, their treatment as to decoration;
and, lastly, the vividness and intensity of their details.

One may even go a step further and assert that they have the
dimensions that they ought to have, the dimensions that are best
calculated to enhance the artist's magnificent gifts, and to make one
forget the qualities in which, perhaps, he was lacking. The scenes
which he kindles into life, to say nothing of single characters that
he portrays, are like stories told in an intimate sort of way; they
force one to draw closer.

They have not sufficient harmony and amplitude to attract attention
from a distance; but, seen from near by, they give their message with
exquisite precision. They offer a hundred subtle details for us to
seek out and approve; a painstaking grouping for us to admire; and,
best of all, expressive physiognomies for us to read. It seems as
though the dimensions had been calculated on exactly the right scale
to awaken all these impressions at once and blend them as completely
as possible. And all this would have been too scattered in an ampler
setting. It is because of this perfect proportion that it has been so
justly said that "Meissonier's pictures never look small excepting
before you have really looked at them."

But let us make no mistake in this regard. Painting on a small scale
would not of itself suffice to attain this maximum of intensity. It
needed, on the contrary, an enormous amount of talent to avoid an
effect of fussiness and preciosity.

Still other reasons have been given for the great value of this
artist's works in spite of their smallness, or rather because of their
smallness. M. Gustave Larroumet has written on this very point a
brilliant and ingenious special plea, of which the following is the
principal passage:

"There is a certain class of subjects in which amplitude is an error
of judgment. If you wish to paint the coronation of Napoleon, the
bridge of Tailebourg, or the battle of the Cimbri, you have the right
to measure your canvas in proportion to the space which such scenes
occupy in reality; on the other hand you might conceive of your
subject in such fashion that it could be contained completely within a
square metre. But why give to an artistic reproduction more relative
importance than the originals have in reality? Supposing you wish to
show me a passer-by, on foot or on horseback. How do they interest me
in real life? Simply by the rapid impression that they leave upon my
eye and mind. I have seen them at a distance, reduced to a few
centimetres by perspective. I am satisfied if you show them to me in
the same proportion."

The argument is specious. Perhaps it is more ingenious than it is well
founded, and lays itself open to discussion. But it will not do to
linger too long over abstract polemics, when we are in the presence of
a reality, a type of work, every least portion of which makes its
appeal and, by the very fact that it is so full of interest and of
life, practically answers the subtle problem that it has raised.

In 1840 more pictures were sent to the Salon: a _Reader_, a _Saint
Paul_, an _Isaiah_.

Was the painter beginning to change his manner? Those last two
pictures might give reason to fear so. They were life size, yet that
did not prevent them from being dull and commonplace in execution.
Doubtless, irritated by his critics, Meissonier had wished to prove
that he also, if he wanted to, could paint according to the schools.
Even the artists who are surest of themselves sometimes come to these
hasty and impatient determinations.

Fortunately for him, he made a bad showing, and a painter who had
great influence over him, Jules Chenavard, succeeded in recalling him
from the false path into which he was trying to force his talent.

On the other hand, the praises bestowed upon his _genre_ painting,
_The Reader_, which was "genuine Meissonier," could not fail to
encourage him to remain true to himself. The _Revue des Deux Mondes_,
in its critical review of the Salon, bestowed upon this picture an
enthusiastic tribute, couched in a style that may seem to us today
somewhat old-fashioned:

"A Flemish canvas, if there ever was one. Picture to yourself a good
old soul, retired from business, his skin as wrinkled as the parchment
of his books, ill clad, ill fed, and nevertheless the happiest man in
the world: he is a bibliophile, and he is in the midst of old books!
You could hardly believe how vividly this noble passion is expressed
in that little picture. But where in the world did M. Meissonier come
across all those delightful little rarities in books? You can almost
smell the adorable odour of old bindings!"

The young artist--he was at that time only twenty-five--was awarded a
third-class medal. The following year he obtained a second-class
medal, and his painting, _The Game of Chess_, won him a brilliant
triumph: it was purchased by M. Paul Périer. It was a material triumph
not to be despised: the picture brought two thousand francs, which at
that time was considerable. The moral triumph was even bigger, because
Paul Périer was an experienced collector, who acquired only such works
as were worthy to take their place in an assemblage where the biggest
names of the period were represented by masterpieces.

Henceforth, success after success followed regularly. Each picture
that he sent to the Salon won increasing distinction: _A Smoker_ (they
are a goodly number, the smokers and the readers that came from
Meissonier's brush!); _A Young Man Playing the 'Cello_; _The Painter
in his Studio_; _The Guard-House_; _The Young Man Looking at
Sketches_; _The Game of Piquet_; _The Park at Saint-Cloud_. This last
picture was done in collaboration; Meissonier painted only the
figures, the landscape was the work of Français.

This mounting success, which so quickly turned into glory, was
legitimate. The artist had by this time all his resources admirably at
command, and was fully imbued with his ideal.

He had learned to give to every face that profundity, to every scene
that intensity of action, that constitutes his individual bigness. The
arrangement of the _milieu_, the scrupulous devotion to realism that
we noted in the opening lines of this study, the prodigious anxiety to
give to every one of his personages such play of physiognomy, such
expression, glance, and gesture as would best reveal their character
and help us to know them better,--all these things combine and
harmonize to produce an effect of remarkable power.

    [Illustration: PLATE VI.--THE PLAYERS AT BOWLS

    (In the Casa-Riera Collection)

    This curious composition represents some Spanish soldiers
    playing bowls outside the city wall. The painting, which is
    hardly larger than the accompanying reproduction, is a little
    masterpiece of actuality, and the people in it move in a
    thoroughly faithful landscape, lit by the warm sunlight of
    Spain.]

Those among Meissonier's contemporaries who had assured taste and
artistic insight were impressed by the number of qualities revealed in
such limited space. Let us listen to Théophile Gautier:

"Meissonier," he wrote in an article published in the _Gazette des
Beaux-Arts_, "composes his pictures with a science unknown to the
Flemish masters to whom he is compared. Take, for example, a Smoker!
The manner in which he is placed in the centre of the picture, one
elbow resting on the table, one leg crossed over the other, one hand
hanging idly by his side, his body sunk within his gaping waistcoat,
his head bowed forward in revery, or jovially thrown backward,--all
this forms a composition which, while not so apparent to the eye as
some dramatic scene, nevertheless works its effect upon the spectator.
The accessories cleverly play their part to throw more light upon the
character of the central figure. Here is a Smoker, for instance, who
is a worthy man, no doubt of it; clad in an ample coat of ancient cut,
and of a modest gray, with a well brushed cocked hat upon his head;
one foot swings free, encased in a good, stout shoe, with silver
buckle; and, with the tranquillity of an honest conscience, he draws
in a deep breath of tobacco smoke, which he allows to escape again in
little clouds, wishing, thrifty man that he is, to make the pleasure
last. Close at hand, upon a table with spiral legs, he has placed side
by side a flagon and a pewter-lidded tankard of beer. An intimate
satisfaction radiates from his face, which is furrowed by deep lines,
a face expressive of foresight, orderly habits, and rigid probity. One
could trust him with one's cash-box and account books. Here is another
Smoker, clad in red; he also holds a pipe and performs apparently the
same action; but his disordered garments, violently rumpled, buttoned
askew, his three-cornered hat jammed down upon his eyebrows, his cuffs
and frilled shirt crumpled by nervous fingers, his whole attitude
expressive of feverish anxiety, his twitching lip straining around the
clay stem of his pipe, his hand thrust angrily into an empty
pocket,--all these details proclaim the adventurer or the gambler in
hard luck. He is evidently saying to himself: 'Where the deuce could I
borrow a louis or even a crown?' Even the background, if we consult
it, gives further enlightenment. In this case we no longer have neat
plastering of modest gray and substantial brown woodwork, but battered
and dirty walls stained with smoke and grease, reeking of tap-room
foulness and unclean lodgings. And that shows how far one smoker may
fall short of resembling another!"

It is precisely this difference between one human being and another,
in other words, this quality of individuality, that constitutes the
creative gift of the real artist and proves that the honour of this
title is really deserved by a painter whose pictures are animated
groups, among whom a spectator may wander, studying them with growing
interest, and then afterwards call to mind the various types,
episodes, scenes, dramas that he has actually _seen_.

One can never grow tired of quoting Gautier apropos of an artist whose
brush always had something in common with his pen. This masterly art
critic has described for us, sketched in words, so to speak, still
another picture: "A man standing before a window through which the
daylight streams flecking his face with silver; in his hand he holds a
book which absorbs his entire attention,--this is not a complicated
theme, but it grips us like life itself. We want to know the contents
of that volume, it seems as though we could almost conjecture it.
Plenty of other artists have painted marquises and marchionesses,
sleek abbés and shameless beauties of the Eighteenth Century, thanks
to the aid of powder and patches and paint, rosettes, paniers,
bespangled coats, silken stockings, red-heeled shoes, fans, screens,
cameos, crackled porcelain, bonbonnières and other futilities.
Meissonier rediscovered the decent folk of that period, which was not
made up exclusively of mighty lords and fallen women, and of which we
get, through Chardin, a glimpse on its honest, settled bourgeois side.
Meissonier introduces us into modest interiors, with woodwork of sober
gray, furniture without gilding, the homes of worthy folk, simple and
substantial, who read and smoke and work, look over prints and
etchings, or copy them, or chat sociably, with elbows on table,
separated only by a bottle brought out from behind the faggots."

And who can ever forget, in _The Confidence_ (the picture which passed
from the gallery of M. Chauchard to that of the Louvre), how tense and
attentive the face of the listener is, even in repose, while the
relaxation of the body is revealed by his posture, as he leans against
the wall with an elbow on the table,--and how naïve the face of his
friend--younger and better looking--as he reads the letter: naïve,
excited, even somewhat simple, with a nose slightly exceeding the
average length and a forehead just a trifle too low.

In the _Game of Cards_, a soldier and a civilian are seated opposite
each other, in the midst of a contest. The soldier has a dogged air
and he is losing. Apparently, he is not a strong adversary, for the
man of questionable age who faces him, his small, narrow, foxy head
surmounted by a three-cornered hat, his lean body lost in the depths
of a huge greatcoat, his thin ankle showing beneath the white
stocking, belongs to the race of weaklings who live at the expense of
the strong.

In _The Etcher_, just as in _The Man at the Window_--two of his most
celebrated pictures (the former brought 272,000 francs, even during
Meissonier's lifetime)--the interest of the principal--and
only--figure is heightened and singularly beautified by a delicate
effect of light, forming an aureole, in the very centre of the
picture, respectively around the face of the worker and of the
dreamer.

Note, in _A Song_, the moist eye of the musketeer playing the guitar,
and in _Pascuale_ the half stupid, half poetic air of the central
figure engaged in the same occupation; note also in _The Alms-giving_
the frowning brow of the horseman as he searches in his pocket; and in
_The Visit to the Chateau_--an ostentation of coaches and gentry--and
in _The Inn_--three cavaliers who have halted for the moment and are
grouped around the serving-maid, as they drink--the reconstruction of
an entire epoch with its pomps and its idylls, that justifies us in
calling these pictures veritable "stage settings taken from life."

One might spend a long time in analyzing the various shades in the
gamut of expressions on the faces of the principal and secondary
figures in the _Game of Piquet_, who, scattered all nine of them
around the two sides of the tavern table, follow either amusedly or
critically or with feverish interest the changing fortunes of the
game. And in the _Portrait of the Sergeant_, what a magnificent
collection of different degrees of attention: that of the portrait
painter as he studies his model standing in front of him on the
pavement, in his finest uniform and his finest pose; that of the model
intent only upon doing nothing to disturb his ultra-martial bearing,
his gaze menacing, staring, fixed; that of the spectators, some of
them drawing near, fascinated, another who casts an amused glance at
the picture as he passes by, with some sarcastic remark on his lips;
another who no doubt has just been looking, and for the moment, with
pipe between his teeth, is thinking of something else as he sits on a
bench with his back to the wall and his legs extended in front of him.

_The Quarrel_, with all the feverish violence that drives the two
bravos at each other's throats, has perhaps more amplitude and less
realism than any of the previously mentioned works. It is
Meissonier's one romantic painting, and he professed a great
admiration for it, ranking it as one of his four best canvases. It is
recorded that the master said one day to a friend:

    [Illustration: PLATE VII.--AMATEURS OF PAINTINGS

    (In the Musée du Louvre)

    This picture, which must not be confused with the _Amateurs of
    Paintings_, in the Musée Cluny at Chantilly, is nevertheless a
    replica of the latter. They are differentiated by a few
    insignificant details, but they resemble each other in the
    harmony of the grouping and the truth of the attitudes.]

"I have seen my _Quarrel_ at Secretan's. I looked at it as though I
had never seen the picture before. Well, do you know, it is really a
fine thing!"



MILITARY PAINTINGS


Mention should be made, before passing on to the military paintings,
of just a few other genre paintings: _The Reading at Diderot's_, _The
Amateurs_, _The Flute Players_.

But it is the military pictures that loom up largely amongst the
artist's prolific output:--_1807_, the portrayal of the Imperial
Apotheosis, the army passing by at a gallop, eagerly acclaiming the
Emperor, as he answers with a salute; _1814_, the decline, the retreat
from Russia; _1815_, the cuirassiers of Waterloo before the charge.
This picture, which formed part of the Duc d'Aumale's collection, was
purchased for 250,000 francs, but afterwards twice resold: the first
time for 275,000 francs, the second for 400,000 francs.

Yet it may be said that the artist fully earned what some of these
military paintings brought him. Although he mounted successively all
the rungs of official honours (he was made Knight of the Legion of
Honour at the age of thirty, Officer at forty-one, Commander at
fifty-two, received the grand golden medal at the Exposition
Universelle of 1855, and became a member of the Academy of Fine Arts
in 1861), Meissonier nevertheless always led a singularly active and
industrious life. Not only did he paint a prodigious number of
pictures (in 1886, four hundred were already catalogued), but he took
part in the Italian campaign of 1859 and in the Franco-Prussian war!

In 1859 he was, at his own request, attached to the Imperial Staff of
the French army, dreaming, as he had himself acknowledged, of becoming
"the Van der Meulen" of the campaign. At all events, he got out of it
one of his best canvases: _Napoleon III. at Solférino_, which never
left the Musée du Luxembourg until it was transferred to the Musée du
Louvre.

He himself has related, with a delightful sense of humour, the
machiavelian intrigues to which he resorted in order to secure the
Emperor's consent to pose. For the idea of painting a figure, and
especially the central figure, without a sitting, was a heresy that he
could not even contemplate. Let us hear his own account:

"Would Napoleon III. pose for Solférino? That was what weighed on my
mind most of all. You know my love for exactitude. I had revisited
Solférino, in order to get the landscape and the battle-field direct
from nature. You can understand how essential it was for me to have
the Emperor give me a sitting, if only for five minutes. I managed
things, I think, rather cleverly. I began by blocking in my picture
roughly; then I invited an officer whom I happened to know, to come
and give me his advice on certain military details. This officer, as I
was aware, had served at Solférino. I led him on to tell the part he
had played in the combat, and when the iron was hot I proposed that he
should let me include him among the figures in my picture. He
consented eagerly. When the portrait was successfully finished, he
talked of it to other officers, who came to see it and, in their turn,
offered to serve me as models. One of them was acquainted with
Maréchal Magnan, and it was he who brought me Fleury, who in his turn
brought me Leboeuf.

"The latter undertook to show my painting to the Emperor, and to that
end secured me an invitation to go to Fontainebleau. Napoleon III.
received me cordially, and after spending a long time in studying my
picture, in which only one figure was now lacking, he inquired who,
according to my idea, that missing figure should be. 'Why, you, Sire.'
'Then you are going to paint my portrait?' he remarked. 'How will you
do that?' 'From memory, and with the help of published documents.'
'But all that is not equal to a single sitting,' replied the Emperor.
'Do you not agree with me, M. Meissonier?' 'Undoubtedly, Sire, but--'
'Very well, nothing is simpler, let us both mount our horses, and go
for a short ride, and while we chat, you can study me at your
leisure.'

"Overjoyed at the opportunity afforded, I rapidly formed a most
mephistophelian plot. As it happened, it was precisely at
Fontainebleau that my old friend Jadin had his studio. I manoeuvred to
guide our course in the direction of that studio, and when we were at
his very door, I boldly proposed to the Emperor that we should pay a
visit to the good Jadin. He laughingly consented, and thereupon the
two of us descended upon Jadin who, unprepared for either of us, was
in his painter's blouse, smoking his pipe. The Emperor, greatly amused
by this adventure, refused to let Jadin disturb himself. He rolled a
cigarette and, taking his seat astride of a chair, entered into
conversation. Meanwhile I had seized the first pencil that came to
hand, and fell to sketching. The unforeseen sitting lasted for a good
half-hour. It served me not only for the completion of Solférino, but
for another picture besides, a little panel."

A fine example of artistic perseverance and diplomacy,--greatly aided,
it must be admitted, by the complaisance of the interested Emperor.

Eleven years later--the year of terror--the artist, in spite of his
fifty-six years, undertook active service. Yielding, however, to the
entreaties of his friends, he left the army near Sedan, the night
before the battle of Borny, and set forth alone, on horseback. His
journey back to Paris was a veritable Odyssey. Along the road to
Verdun he was constantly taken for a spy and halted. At Etain, he was
taken prisoner, and owed his release solely to the universal renown of
his name. It took him three days to reach Poissy, where he had his
country home; and once there, he organized a national guard. But at
the news of the investment of Paris, Meissonier hastened to make his
way into the besieged capital.

The morning after the Fourth of September, he besought the Minister of
War, Léon Gambetta, for an appointment as prefect in one of the
departments that were either invaded or menaced. His patriotism was
only partly satisfied; he was appointed Colonel in the staff of the
National Guard. "The populace of Paris," says a witness, "when they
saw that little man with florid face and long gray beard, and legs
encased in tight leathern breeches, passing back and forth along the
boulevards, often cheered him, mistaking him for the major-general of
artillery."

The painter planned to commemorate the defence of Paris in a picture
of colossal size. The project never got beyond the stage of an outline
sketch, of deep and tragic interest.

Have we cause to regret this? Meissonier was an allegorical painter,
and nowhere more than in his military pictures--both scenes and
types--do his powerful and delicate qualities of penetrating
observation reveal themselves. Every one of his soldiers,--trooper,
musketeer, French guard, Grenadier of the guard,--in full uniform or
in fatigue, or even in the disarray of the barrack-room, has his own
personal physiognomy, and manner and temperament; they one and all
_live_, and in them lives the conscientious and brilliant artist who
laboured so faithfully to create them and succeeded so well.

Is it not because of this expressive relief both of figures and
gestures that people were able to compare Meissonier to Marmot, and to
say that "Meissonier was worthy to paint the stories of Marmot, and
Marmot worthy to furnish stories to Meissonier"?

It would be only just, before leaving him, to defend the artist--who
after enjoying a vogue that was perhaps a trifle too enthusiastic,
has fallen, quite unjustly into slight disfavour--from two criticisms
that have frequently been passed upon him. Too much stress has been
laid on his lack of the gift of colour and the gift of grace.

    [Illustration: PLATE VIII.--NAPOLEON III. AT SOLFÉRINO

    (Tommy Thierry Bequest, Musée du Louvre)

    Under any other hand than Meissonier's, the group constituting
    the Imperial Staff would have been banale in the extreme, but
    thanks to an ability that has no parallel outside of the great
    Flemish painters, the artist has succeeded in making these
    miniature figures veritable portraits of the shining military
    lights of that period.]

To be sure, he is not a colourist in the grand, resplendent sense in
which the word is associated with the names of Titian or Paolo
Veronese; but it has been said with a good deal of reason, that he had
a colour sense "suited to his range of vision." In view of the
realistic and palpable clearness with which he saw things, he must
needs adapt a soberly exact scheme of colour; for in any one of his
works the dazzling and magnificent orgies indulged in by lyric poets
of the palette would have been as out of place as a character from
Shakespeare would be in the midst of a prosaic scene in our modern
literal-minded drama. The colourists use their tints to paint dreams,
transposing into a resplendent and intense register the tranquil
harmony of the actual colours; they produce something different from
what the rest of the world sees; something more, if you choose, but at
any rate something different. The impeccable truthfulness of a
Meissonier stubbornly adheres to that modest harmony which the others
leave behind them in a soaring flight that sometimes verges on folly.
One might prefer to have had him totally different; but, granting the
serious forethought in his choice of subject and conception of
structure, his colouring could not have been different from what it
was.

As to his lack of charm and grace, that is a reproach which for the
most part he took little trouble to avoid, for he hardly ever painted
women; but it was a reproach which he in no way deserved when he did
transfer them to his canvases. We need to offer no further proof of
this than his adorable studies of Mme. Sabatier and the portrait that
he made of her. The strange attraction of that beautiful face, so full
of intelligence and fascination, the delicate and matchless
suppleness of posture, all blend together in a compelling yet
mysterious radiance with which only a great artist could illuminate
his paper or his canvas.

Accordingly one should guard against any judgment too absolute, too
definitely peremptory regarding a talent so rich in resources; but
undeniably Meissonier greatly preferred to paint musketeers or
grenadiers, to say nothing of horses.

Horses, by the way, were one of Meissonier's weaknesses. He owned some
beautiful ones, and used them not only as models but also for riding.
He spoke on many occasions of the incomparable pleasure that he found
in directing "those admirable machines," which he defined as "the
stupidest of all intelligent animals." But that in no way detracted
from their beauty of form. "What a pleasure it is to make their
mechanism work!" he confided to one of his distinguished friends.
"Just think that the slightest movement of the rider, the slightest
motion of hand or leg, the slightest displacement of the body have
their immediate effect upon the horse's movements, and that a true
horseman plays upon his mount as a musician plays upon his instrument.
For the painter a horse is a whole gamut of lights and of colours. Its
eye, now calm and now excited, the quivers of its coat and undulations
that run through it, the variety of its lines and the infinite beauty
of their combinations afford material for a whole lifetime of study."

And here again we meet, as in everything that he said and thought,
that same love of detail, that meticulous admiration for reality and
that cult of patient labour which is the secret of all that he
achieved.

Furthermore, there was no moment in his remarkable career--which was
destined to be crowned by an apotheosis when the artists of the entire
world united in choosing him as president of the Exposition
Universelle des Beaux-Arts in 1889--there was no moment in his career
when he sacrificed the sacred principle of exactitude and of
documentation which were the foundation of his splendid honesty.

Of this artistic virtue there are abundant examples. We have already
cited one in the opening pages; we will cite another by way of
conclusion: one of his friends called upon Meissonier at Poissy: "The
concierge told me," this friend relates, "'Meissonier is in the studio
opening on the court.' I found my way into that huge studio cumbered
with sketches of every sort, with studies of horses modelled in wax
and standing on pedestals. I waited a while, and then in trying to
discover where a beam of vivid light found its way in through some
crack in a door, I discovered, in the little court adjoining the
châlet, Meissonier out in the blazing sunlight astride of a bench that
did duty for a horse; heavy boots, breeches of white cashmere, uniform
of grenadier of the Imperial guard, decorations on his breast, and,
last of all, the 'gray redingote.' He was seated on a saddle lent to
him by the son of Prince Jerome. In his hand he held a tablet on which
was fastened a sheet of white paper, and he was carefully sketching
himself, studying his reflection in a mirror. It was the middle of
summer and the heat was atrocious. 'My model can't pose as Napoleon,'
he told me, 'but I have exactly Napoleon's legs.'"

Is it necessary to say after this that no painter ever informed
himself with such religious zeal in regard to costumes and
accessories? Of the heroic Imperial Epoch which he worshipped above
all others, he sought and gathered together all sorts of relics: not
content with the possession of a white horse closely resembling that
of Napoleon I., he used to point with pride, both in his collection
and in his paintings, to a complete set of trappings that had once
served the Emperor; and one of the greatest rages that he ever felt in
his life was produced by the respectful but firm refusal of the
Beaux-Arts to lend him the "Gray Redingote."

His "working library," as he called it, contained incomparable riches.
It included breeches, hats, helmets, boots, shoes, pumps, buckles,
walking-sticks, and jewelry. He would have been able, by rummaging
there, to clothe from top to toe whole generations of bourgeoise,
nobles, and labourers, from any epoch of French history, to say
nothing of the various regiments and the staff officers! He quite
literally bought out the stock of second-hand dealers in the Temple
market, which up to the middle of the nineteeth century was the sales
place of old clothes once worn by our great-grandparents and their
ancestors.

And we know,--his fine passion for the truth was always cropping
out,--that he actually suffered because he could not clothe his models
with genuine old linen. At the end of some very conscientious
researches that he had pursued in the Imperial Library, he considered
that he had made a discovery that was useful to his art, when he read
in the _Encyclopedia_ that in the eighteenth century linen was cut on
the bias, and not straight across, as it is today. We must not smile!
For herein lay the secret of greater suppleness in the folds.

And when, detail by detail, his documentation had been completed, what
endless sketches, experiments, rough drafts had to follow! For a
single painting he acknowledged that he had to make whole "cubic
metres" of preliminary studies.

In spite of all this, when the picture was finished and more than
finished, it did not always please him. The same friend whose personal
testimony we have already cited, informs us that one day, in his
presence, the artist violently slashed up a painting which everybody
else had pronounced perfect, while at that very moment a purchaser was
waiting for it in the vestibule: "I don't know how to paint!" cried
the artist in despair, "I shall never learn my craft."

There we have an impulse and a sacrifice which few painters would be
capable of making in sincerity, and which define better than the
longest dissertations could do, the soul of Meissonier, his talent and
his glory.





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