CHATTO £17.99 £15.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

The Judgement of Paris by Ross King

Don't look up, we're all in a chamber-pot

In his day, Meissonier was the world's most famous painter, bought by Prince Albert, John Ruskin and Richard Wallace of the Wallace Collection. Of his contemporaries, only Delacroix and Ingres could hold a candle to him, though his pictures easily outsold theirs. In 1865, Lord Hertford bought Halt at an Inn for 36,000 francs, paying 20,000 francs at the same auction for a mere Ingres. In 1890, the year before his death, Meissonier's The Campaign of France went for 850,000 francs - more than the annual budget of the Paris Opera, and the highest price paid for any work by any artist, living or dead, anywhere in the 19th century.

Not knowing about Meissonier in 1863 would have been like not knowing about Edouard Manet today. On the other hand, knowing about Manet in 1863 was like knowing about Meissonier now, which is to say, a sign of probable weirdness. All three of young Edouard's submissions had been rejected from that year's salon, among them a work called Le Bain, now known as Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Two years later, another Manet, Olympia, was greeted by "epidemics of crazed laughter", with guards posted to prevent its attack. Yet, barely a century on, the historian T J Clark dubbed Olympia "the founding monument of modern art", even as a statue of Meissonier was being dragged from the Louvre on the orders of André Malraux. In 1989, the Getty paid $27m for Manet's Rue Mosnier. A Meissonier in the same sale would have been hard put to find a buyer.

So, what happened? One of the many engaging things about Ross King's book, The Judgement of Paris, is that it doesn't really tell us. The easy answer would be to say that tastes in art shifted from Meissonier's perfect finish - unmarked surfaces, Vermeer-like detail - to canvases on which paint had been laid quickly à la Manet; from archaic subjects - Meissonier's 17th-century bonshommes - to Baudelaire's depiction of modern life. Speed, the world viewed from a train, changed the way 19th-century Frenchmen saw. Manet celebrated this in Le Chemin de Fer, and swept the board. Meissonier had a railway built to watch horses gallop. He sank like a stone.

King is having none of this neatness, though. Just as Zola called the Paris Salon a ragout, so King's view of the history of art is stirred in with other histories: of horse racing, the Bonaparte clan, the Franco-Mexican War.

Even art history isn't as tidy as it looks. The antediluvian Meissonier's career began with a genuinely modern picture, A Remembrance of Civil War, 1848. His claim to have invented plein air painting may have been exaggerated, but he was working out-of-doors long before Manet was. Contrariwise, Manet's reputation was made by a bonhomme portrait, Le Bon Bock. Le Bain was inspired by the Raphael which gives King's book its title, Olympia by Titian's Venus of Urbino - pedigrees that would have had the Academic Meissonier nodding with glee.

But the real fascination of The Judgement of Paris is in King's linking of his subjects to events outside the art world. One reason for Meissonier's fall from grace was his identification with the Second Empire. Remembrance of Civil War was seen as so seditious after Napoleon III's coup that the court fed Meissonier commissions to keep him from painting anything like it again. Thus the pierrots and ruddy drinkers. But it was also Napoleon who was behind the Salon des Refusés of 1863 where Le Bain was first shown. Keen to distract public attention from reverses in his Mexican adventure, the Emperor insisted scandals like Manet's should be given a show of their own. "One of the first duties of a sovereign," observed a shrewd Napoleon, "is to amuse his subjects." If less directly, Manet was as much the Emperor's man as Meissonier.

King's is a brilliant book, a micro-history that feels like a macro-history. Apart from anything else, it is full of dinner-party titbits: Bonaparte falling off the Arcole Bridge (as notably not painted by Horace Vernet); General Ducrot observing the surrounding Prussian army and sighing "We're in a chamber-pot and about to be shat on." The Judgement of Paris is a good read and good history; as unusual a pairing as its twin subjects.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own