P.P. sends me a copper plate engraving on paper which is signed Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-91), a French Classicist painter known for his portrayal of cocky handsome soldiers, ‘bonhommes’ – original Good Fellas of the 17th and 18th century. Meissonier loved to paint armies, Napoleon, chivalry, games of skill, and manly men smoking pipes, reading, drinking, eating and posing in uniform. His work was famed for its meticulous line and tiny details, and, although large-scale mythological and moralistic history paintings were formerly prized, he turned popular taste to the small canvas of narrative, good old days themes, often including just a few (handsome, stalwart) historically dressed subjects.
Meissonier in his day charged so much for his paintings that by mid-career in 1846 he could afford a Grand Mansion in Poissy complete with two studios, one, glass-roofed for summer, and the other, a warm top-floor studio for winter. Portly, massively bearded in white, he looked every inch the “old master,” selling to the likes of Sir Richard Wallace, the Duc de Mornay, and Queen Victoria, and later, commissioned by Napoleon III to document battle scenes as they happened.
Just 40 years before the Impressionists turned the art world on its head, fresh out of art school Meissonier first exhibited in the Salon of 1831 a small detailed painting of ‘Dutch Burghers’ in a throwback style reminiscent of Dutch Realism of the 17th C. The Salon of 1857 saw nine Meissonier paintings, all historical genre pieces, such as his “The Young Man at the Time of the Regency.” He lived what he painted: loving military life, in 1848 he fought on the French Republican side as a captain in the National Guard. King Emmanuel of Piedmont and Sardinia with Napoleon III warred against the Hapsburgs in Northern Italy; Meissonier was called to document that glory. After working three years, Meissonier produced “The Emperor Napoleon III at Solferino,” showing a grand mustachioed emperor on Campaign, at the 1861 salon.
The artistic climate of Paris in the 3rd quarter of the 19th C has often been described as the established order holding onto dear life in the dawn of industrialization, modern warfare, photography, and new ways of seeing. Meissonier represented the Old Guard. Upon their first exhibit in 1874 at the studio of the photographer Nadar of the “Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.” (the first Impressionist exhibition), Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro and Morisot saw Meissonier, a few years later and across Paris, showing 16 historical paintings at the Exhibition of 1878, such as his portrait of “Alexandre Dumas,” and “Cuirassiers of 1805,” and “Outpost of the Grand Guard.” Two more opposing currents have seldom been witnessed in the art world.
The art world and those upstart painters from the other side of the City of Lights would have to wait a bit for an Impressionist Revolution: Meissonier became President of the Great National Exhibit in 1883, showing “The Army of the Rhine,” and in 1885, Meissonier became the President of the Societe National des Beaux-Arts, a newly minted organization holding onto the Old Guard of art and architecture.
P.P. was also a Meissonier etcher, and we see this in P.P.’s piece: both a master etcher of his own works and the works of other artists; etchings sold well to the middle class, perhaps because of affordable, conservative manly themes as “Preparations for a Duel” and “The Reporting Sergeant.” The glory of French militarism was in the air: in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Meissonier was a Colonel of a regiment; previously he had accompanied Napoleon III to Italy attached to his Imperial staff. He loved his uniforms!
P.P.’s etching of two handsome young military types reading a letter is pencil signed in the margin by the artist and also signed in the “plate” which means his signature is etched into the design itself for multiples of prints; it is dated 1857 in the plate. Also in pencil in the margin is the name Henri Dioz, a soldier who fought in 17th C. in battles against the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Spanish for the treasures (mainly sugar) of Brazil. Thus, Meissonier depicts a noble soldier reading missives from this glorious foreign war to a comme il faut friend. Note a “Remarque” lower right – a small image worked by Meissonier as a footnote to this etching; this depicts two fashionably dressed young swordsmen.
Although a huge moneymaker in his time, today Meissonier is not in great demand, and I place the value of P.P.’s etching at $300.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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