Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Highest-Paid Artist Of His Time

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891)
The Sergeant’s Portrait
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Oil On Canvas
28 11/16 Inches By 24 3/8 Inches


“All of us will be forgotten, but Meissonier will be remembered.”—Eugène Delacroix

Meissonier may have had Delacroix in his corner, but it has not helped Meissonier’s long-term reputation that Napoleon III, Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm were among his most ardent admirers.

Meissonier is being rediscovered today, slowly but surely, after being written out of art history books early in the Twentieth Century.

The artist’s small but exquisite canvases—he left behind a handful of large-scale history paintings, too—show a command of draftsmanship, a subtle and sure mastery of color, and a remarkable attention to detail that is never permitted to overwhelm a composition.

In November 2006, over the course of three visits to the Kunsthalle, we must have spent an hour, even more, with “The Sergeant’s Portrait”. It overwhelmed everything else in the room, including Franz Von Lenbach’s famous (and excellent) portrait of Franz Liszt, hung immediately adjacent to “The Sergeant’s Portrait”.

The finest Meissonier in America, a painting of a vanquished Napoleon immediately after Waterloo, is in The Walters Museum in Baltimore. That particular Meissonier was on display in March 2009 when Joshua and I visited The Walters, but it was hung near the ceiling in a salon-style room and, for practical purposes, could not be viewed (as was the finest Lenbach in America, a portrait of Otto Von Bismarck, hung near the ceiling in the very same Walters gallery).

In person, “The Sergeant’s Portrait” is riveting. My mother says that extreme subtlety of coloration is what first attracts the viewer’s notice, after which the viewer focuses on the persons depicted and, finally, the drama being played out. It is only after a few minutes of study that the viewer begins to marvel at the proliferation of detail captured in the painting and starts to realize that the canvas is the work of a great master, comparable to the work of the great masters from the Dutch Golden Age.

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