Friday, October 31, 2008

The Judgment of Paris by Ross King

(Book Review)

I found this as an audiobook at the Cascade library the last time I was back home.

Actually I had seen it on the shelves several times before, but I had never checked it out because I wasn’t sure it would interest me. But this time I thought to myself, “Hey, it’s a free public library, right? It’s not like I’m out anything if I don’t like it. I might as well give it a try.”

I’m glad I did.

This is a book about art history. Now personally, I’m not very interested in art history, but I am interested in history. And there is (I think it goes without saying) a lot of overlap between the two.

This book weaves together a lot of different threads to make its story. There’s a lot of history and historical background. There’s a lot of biographical information about the artists involved. And there’s a lot of commentary on their evolving art styles. I was very interested in the history, somewhat interested in the biography, and not so interested in the art styles. But that’s just me. Since I’m a history geek, I’ll review this book from a history geek’s perspective. If you’re an art student, you might have a completely different take on it.

This book follows the lives of two artists, Edouard Manet and Ernest Meissonier who represented two different poles of the French art world in the 19th Century. The book follows their career from the early 1860s through the mid 1870s.

Now, if you know your French history, you no doubt realize that some very interesting events occurred during this period; Louis Napoleon’s ill-fated Mexican adventure, the Franco-Prussian War, the downfall of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) and the end of the 2nd Empire, and the creation of the 3rd Republic. And the Paris Commune.

This book is rich with historical background on all of these events and more. And Ross King is a talented writer who has a gift for story-telling. I really enjoyed listening to him as he narrated through all these events.

It is not, however, primarily a history book. And the history geek in me would occasionally get frustrated that, whenever Alex Ross was getting into some really interesting historical events, he would then double back to tell the reader what was happening in the French art world.

The- Paris -Commune, as regular readers of this blog know, has long been one of my pet interests, and it was one of the reasons I wanted to give this book a try in the first place.

The Paris Commune also has a special connection to art history. Gustave Courbet, a socialist realist painter, was a member of the Commune. After the fall of the Commune, Courbet was one of the lucky ones to survive the firing squads, but he was convicted in court of being behind the Commune’s decision to topple the Vendome Column, and ordered to pay for its restitution, which financially ruined him for the rest of his life.

(The Vendome Column was a monument to the battles won in the Napoleonic Wars. The Paris Commune, with its emphasis on internationalism, decided to pull down this monument to military imperialism, only to have the Column rebuilt after the fall of Commune.)

I was vaguely aware of Gustave Courbet even before reading this book. Courbet was a minor character in the historical novel “The Voice of the People” by Jean Vautrin. He also makes an appearance in Jules Valles’s memoir, “The Insurrectionist”. And the book “Revolution and Reaction” contains a defense of Courbet written by his friend Jules Castagnary.

However, Ross King’s book gave a lot of biographical information about Gustave Courbet both before and after the commune. (Although King’s book is primarily about Manet and Meissonier, a lot of other artists pop up in the narrative and Courbet is perhaps the 3rd most important figure in this book after its two main principles.)

Although here again, I must repeat that this book is not primarily a history book. The Paris Commune section of this book is extremely short and, aside from the incident of the Vendome Column, only the barest of historical outline is given.
A pity, because if King had wanted to, there were some other interesting incidents he could have focused on. For example the artist Renoir (who pops up in Ross’s book at times) had the narrowest of escapes from a Commune firing squad, and was saved only by his association with Communard Raoul Rigault--(as recorded in "The Fall of Paris" by Alistair Horne (A)).

For me, another interesting part of this book was the intersection between the artists and the state. On the more benign side, there is Louis Napoleon’s skillful maneuverings to prevent an overly severe Salon art jury from causing him political problems while at the same time avoid looking like he was actively interfering in the private world of arts.

But there is also the story of Delacroix’s famous painting, “Liberty Leading the People” and the history of how it was banned for years before it was allowed to be exhibited publicly.

There is also Manet’s painting, “The Execution of Maximilian” which he labored on intensely, but in the end was not allowed to exhibit because of the political nature of the work.

And in between the two there are more subtle examples, like the Napoleonic government’s (successful) attempt to win Meissonier’s friendship and discourage the republican themes that were beginning to emerge in his art.

These, and some other examples in the book, perhaps explain why there is an abundance of religious art in art history, but comparatively few overtly radical works.

If nothing else, this book is very well written. Art history students should enjoy it. And most history students will as well.

Link of the Day
Levin, Stabenow, and Ehlers Ranked on Environmental Votes

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