three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
By: 
Ross King
user_rating: 
0

The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism

A-The JudgementOfParisIn the art world of mid-19th century Paris, the Salon was everything. Acceptance of an artist’s work assured handsome commissions and fame. The red R stamped on the back of a canvas signaled more than just rejection; it was a badge of incompetence that drove at least one painter to suicide. Ernest Meissonier’s intricately detailed historical canvases were annual favorites at the Salon. Edouard Manet also submitted his paintings each year, but his innovative works were always rejected. In 1863, however, Napoleon III ordered an exhibition of the snubbed called the Salon de Refuses. Manet’s Dejuner sur la Herbe, along with works by Cezanne, Pissaro, and Whistler, set the stage for a revolution in painting that became known as Impressionism.
Walker & Company. 464 pages. $28. ISBN: 0802714668

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"It is, in its broad outlines, a familiar story, but Mr. King … tells it with tremendous energy and skill. It is hard to imagine a more inviting account of the artistic civil war that raged around the Paris Salons of the 1860s and 70s, or of the outsize personalities who transformed the way the world looked at painting." William Grimes

Raleigh News & Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"The book pulls off the dazzling trick of assembling a colossal mass of detail about art and life in Paris during the years leading up to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and presenting these thousands of facts in page-turning fashion." Donald Harington

Newsday 3.5 of 5 Stars
"King writes art history as tapestry—there’s a little of this, a little of that; some social history here, some aesthetic judgment there, with a dollop of scandal and sex thrown into the mix." Matthew Price

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"King finds poignancy in the story of a once-famous artist whose reputation has vanished, making him such a sympathetic figure that if this lively book sparks a Meissonier revival, it won’t be a surprise." Charles Matthews

Vancouver Sun 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Judgment of Paris demonstrates how much entertainment resides in art history. Axe-grinding academics might find picayune errors in emphasis, but the average reader will enjoy a long, warm read." Brian Brett

Boston Globe 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The Judgment of Paris has all the accoutrements of a gripping story—cliff-hanging chapter endings, vivid anecdotes, war and revolution—without the actual story. … In his overhasty ending, which attempts to explain the current state of these artists’ fortunes and the logic of the book as a whole, King is left with too much work still to do." Daniel Swift

Critical Summary

Ross King has an impressive track record chronicling the transformative nature of genius. His Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling ( 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2003) wrapped their author’s extensive knowledge of European culture in brisk, compelling prose. King continues his march through art history’s great moments in The Judgment of Paris and emerges with another triumph. Though the central drama is focused on Manet and Meissonier, The Boston Globe criticizes the book as "at heart an institutional, rather than artistic history." But it is King’s sympathy for the fortunes of both Meissonier and Manet that affords him the narrative backbone to paint such a far-reaching story onto one interesting canvas.