The Judgment of Paris

By Ross King

The “judgment” referred to in the title of this new book by Canadian art historian Ross King has a clever double meaning. In the first place, The Judgment of Paris is the name of a drawing by Raphael illustrating the famous story of Paris’s judgment of a beauty contest between three goddesses. It was his choice of Aphrodite that set in motion the events leading to the Trojan War, making “the judgment of Paris” the great archetype for every invidious arts award since. Raphael’s drawing enters King’s story as the inspiration for one of the figures in Edouard Manet’s painting Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe.

The judgment of Paris also refers to the judgment of Paris, France in the “revolutionary decade” of 1863-1873. “Paris” here begins as a shorthand for the well-connected group of elderly, Old School tastemakers who selected paintings for exhibition in the annual Paris Salon, an immensely popular government-sponsored exhibition for living artists that could literally make or break careers. It was the Salon’s powerful Selection Committee that rejected Manet’s painting, along with a couple of thousand others stamped on the back with the scarlet letter “R” for “refusé.”

As everyone knows, that wasn’t the end of the story. 1863 was the year of the Salon des Refusés, where Dejeuner sur l’herbe (or, as it was named at the time, Le Bain) did show. And the rest is history, as recounted in countless coffee-table companions to Impressionism.

The Judgment of Paris covers a lot of this familiar ground, but only as part of a consideration of something more important. The revolutionary decade provides a case study for an examination of something that preoccupies anyone interested in the arts: the matter of taste.

Today, paintings by the Impressionists are among the most highly-regarded works of art in the world among critics, collectors, and the general public. At the time it was a different story. Nor was this just a matter of a cabal of reactionary snobs cocking a snoot at the New Wave of painting. The people of Paris didn’t much care for it either. They preferred the work of someone like the obsessive Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, the most famous and successful painter of the day and King’s foil throughout this book for Manet (though the two were never personal antagonists).

And yet, “more than a century after their deaths, Manet ‘endures in glory, flooded with light and fame’ while Meissonier gathers dust in museum storerooms.”

Why? What happened to change the judgment of Paris, of the marketplace, of the critical establishment, of history? And, if that judgment was so wrong in the 1860s, can we really be sure that we have it right now? Or are we just as much the slaves of dominant conventions as they were?

The viewing public was clearly not ready to appreciate what Manet was doing. They wanted to stand up “close to paintings, studying them minutely and marveling over the delicacy of the handiwork.” Subjected to this kind of scrutiny, Manet seemed crude and lackadaisical. But were contemporary audiences entirely wrong in thinking the new art was just lazy? It’s not an attitude widely at variance with Claude Monet’s. “It really is appallingly difficult to do something which is complete in every respect,” he wrote to a friend, “and I think most people are content with mere approximations.” And yet Meissonier’s strength – his painstaking and precise technique employed in an effort to be “complete in every respect” – was eventually to become a weapon used against him by his critics, while what made a painter like Manet seem absurd – his abstraction, lack of clarity, and break with convention – would come to be seen as an essential part of his triumph.

So what do we mean when we say tastes change? When it comes to the visual arts we all have a bias, a psychological prejudice, toward wanting to see expressions of what we think is “real”. We have a comfort zone when it comes to appreciating art. But even though both Meissonier and Manet could claim to be realistic painters, the way people perceive reality doesn’t remain constant. This changes expectations, and art is asked to fulfill different needs. And so reputations rise and fall even though the song remains the same.

This book offers a smoothly-written introduction to the artistic scene of the time, with surprisingly little analysis or original commentary on any of the painting. King seems content to provide a general overview of the major historical events and personalities as a background to his study of the revolution between “the two opposite poles of art” exemplified by Meissonier and Manet. But those historical events – the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune – and personalities – Napoleon III, Emile Zola – were very much a part of the scene and had their own role to play in changing how people saw their world. And given how good a storyteller King is, no one can complain if he lets the narrative wander where it will.

Review first published April 8, 2006.

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