Thursday, June 17, 2010

Impressionism is Cool Again. Who Knew?

Beginning while I studied art in undergraduate school, I felt a disconnect between visceral, emotionally-charged world of art practice and the hyper-intellectual world of art history. My good friend Joe, a talented painter in Cleveland, Ohio, said it best in his assessment of art historian Kenneth Clark: "that guy could make a blowjob sound boring." While the eminent Sir Kenneth was probably the victim of some undeserved youthful swagger, Joe had a point. Too much of art history writing takes great material and ruins it with a boring story.

Not so for The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism by Ross King (2006). Despite the book's a long subtitle, normally the hallmark of a stodgy door-stopper, King's writing charms and engages as it evokes the French art world of the mid-nineteenth century. The mid 1800s in Paris were, for European art at least, a seminal period of change between the old academic order and the new modern world. It was a time that gave birth to innumerable "isms" as the rigid canons of art were replaced by more personal and expressive forms.

King tells the story of this great transition through the careers of two very opposite contemporaries: Edouard Manet and Ernest Messonier. Messonier, who has ironically slided into near obscurity, was considered in his age one of the world's greatest artists. The ultimate artistic company man, Messonier played by the French academy's rules so well that he amassed plaudits and an impressive fortune. Manet, whose work now adorns the great Temple of Impressionism, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, was largely reviled in his time. His work was considered a base corruption of the high artistic spirit and standards of the academy.

Through Messonier and Manet, King weaves together the stories of those who made up the traditionalist art establishment and those who sought to change it. His thorough research helps us understand not only the personalities, positions, and actions of the major players, but also the effect of the times. Yet even as King sets events in a historical context, his personal approach keeps the story from declining into dry scholarship.

Before I'd read this book, I had always seen the early Impressionist era through the prism of my own time. I took note of the unique qualities of Manet's work - the heavier brushwork, flat lighting, and break with academic subject matter - but the difference between his work and what had come before seemed like nuance. Having now seen those times from the perspective of the traditionalist Messonier and the revolutionary Manet, I understand more the enormous risks the new painters took. They followed their own ideas in spite of the ridicule of the established art world and their subsequent inability to sell work. Without knowing that history would eventually vindicate them, the early Impressionists showed impressive courage in forging ahead with their artistic vision.

I don't know how well The Judgement of Paris would survive a direct comparison to oral sex, but it's certainly worth a few bucks and your time.

Available on here.


  1. Funny that you should say Impressionism is cool again. Earlier this year The New Yorker ran a series of lively articles about the era that increased my enjoyment of the art. The best was Adam Gopnik's "Van Gogh's Ear" (abstract at

  2. Great series suggestion, Edwin. Thanks for the link.