The Judgement of Paris By Ross King

Fine arts of survival
Click to follow

This is an exhilarating book about fame, shifts in taste and uncertain glory. It tracks the reputations of two artists who were polar opposites: Ernest Meissonier, pillar of the establishment, and Edouard Manet, whose paintings transgressed accepted aesthetic ideals. It is also a deft account of French cultural history during a period of transition. When the book opens, in 1863, the Second Empire is at its height, but by 1874, at the close, imperial power has given way to a republic, the outcome of military defeat and civil war.

The success Ross King achieved with Brunelleschi's Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling is repeated here, for he fashions history anew. It is not just the breadth of his enquiry that expands knowledge and understanding, but also his timely use of a rich assortment of details. Then, too, the book is so intelligently plotted and conceived that unexpected links and ironic connections neatly dovetail the narrative.

Posterity has judged Manet to be one of the truly great. Few would disagree with T J Clark's claim that his "Olympia" is "the founding monument of modern art". But in 1865, when this painting was exhibited at the Salon, it was derided as a "female gorilla" and had to be placed higher up the wall, out of reach of the angry, mocking public. Manet was the butt of jokes, in streets and newspapers.

Two years later, things had not much improved. This was the year Paris mounted the Exposition Universelle, a festival of arts and industry, where could be seen, among other marvels and miracles, a typewriter, a rubber tyre and le saxophone invented by Adolphe Sax. Part of this spectacle was the International Exhibition of Fine Arts. But Manet, taking his lead from Courbet, decided to go it alone.

He bid for attention by building a wooden pavilion, in which he exhibited 53 canvases. Not a single painting sold. Meanwhile, Meissonier was being awarded a Grand Medal of Honour by the Emperor in front of an audience of 20,000 people. This same year, he also received an offer of 200,000 francs for a still unfinished painting of a Napoleonic subject. It was a then unheard of sum for a picture by a living artist and confirmed Meissonier as the king of painters.

Yet, by 1873, a reversal in fortune had begun. The cult of Napoleon, which Meissonier had upheld, had been damaged by the fall of Napoleon III, while the artist's love of finicky exactitude had begun to seem passé. Manet's broader style and his pursuit of modernities were gaining appreciation. This year an astonished Degas remarked to Manet: "You are as famous as Garibaldi."

King delves into the cultural politics operative in France at this time. He uncovers the intrigue and lobbying that surrounded the annual Salon and which, on occasion, caused the setting up of the Salon des Refusés. As the artists were exhibited in the Salon in alphabetical order, Meissonier and Manet were often hung in the same room.

Manet died aged 51 in 1883, after which the price of his paintings rose astronomically, reaching a stratospheric $26.4m in 1989. Meissonier lived on, his reputation intact, until 1891, after which his reputation and prices collapsed.

He who had lived at Poissy, in a grandiose house with eight horses and a fleet of carriages in the stables and two boats moored on the Seine, once sadly remarked: "Life. How little it really comes to."

Frances Spalding's 'Gwen Raverat: friends, family and affections' is published by Pimlico