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Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 10.djvu/180

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MEISSONIER


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MEISSONIER


ateurs. Moreover no other manner suited so well the special faculties of Meissonier, his rxtraonlinury gift of observation and his almost alisuhite lack of imagina- tion. But he was clever enough to restore genre painting and to blend imitation with invention; thvis, for Dutch subjects he sul)stituted those of the Regency or of the sixteenth century. Above all he excelled in microscopic canvases, wherein the wonderful repro- duction of the minutest details is a perpetual source of astonishment. In painting, the "finished" pro-


scenes of the imperial ipopi'e. In 18G4 he submitted his "1S14" (Louvre); in 1867 his " Desaix to the Army of the Rhine"; next came "1805", "1807" (Mctrojxilitan Museiim, New York), and a large num- lier of other military pictures. This style, which answered the public demand after the events of 1870, brought the artist increaseil popularity. For his " 1S14 " Chauchard paid a million of francs. It is true that in these new subjects the artist displayed the same scrupidous conscientiousness of which he had


duct is always sure to appeal to the philistine, and given proof in his earlier manner. He painted from


when found together with smallness, and when to the pleasure of accuracy is joined that of a teat of skill, admiration knows no bounds. No more is needed to explain the incredible success of Meissonier.

In lS-12 began that series of small tlnmib-nail pic-


nature, even to the very sods of earth. To convey the impression of a broken road, he selected a corner of his garden, had it trampled by men and horses, liad trucks and carts drawn over it, and sprinkled the whole with flour to imitate melting snow. To paint Napo-


tures, the reputation of which so long outshone that of leon, he made use of the grey cloak and the very hat liis larger works. First came "The "idiuig Man play- the emperor wore. But in sjiite of it all he falls short


ing the Bass-viol", then the '■Painter in his studio "(1843), the " Guard -room", the "Readers", the "Smokers", the "Bra\d" (1847), the "Reading at the House of Diderot", the "Bowling- part.y", "La Rixe" or "The Quarrel" (185.5). This year, which marked the first Uni- versal Exhibition, marked also the apogee of Meissonier's triumphs. He was already the favourite painter of his time; he now became the most illustrious. He was compared "n-ith the classic artists and the masters of genre; this was an exagger- ation, and to-day we find much to criticize in him. His art dealt only with what had been already observed. It is regrettable that he did not make better use of his own gifts of observation; that he did not take his subjects di- rectly from life, as did Dau- mier, instead of treating scenes of mere curiosity; that he did not create some- thing "new" instead of giving us a modernized an


Meissonier in 1881 By himself


of the lithographs of Raffet wit h their prodigious mystery and their breath of the heroic. What will last of these curi- ous pictures is the fabu- lous amount of studies and sketches accumulated by the painter in preparation for his pictures. One is filled with respect before the mass of observations; there are draw- ings, studies of soldiers, of equipments, of horses, which are priceless documents. It is remarkable that nothing is more rare than an ensemble study, there is never more than a detail, a gesture, a movement, a muscle, caught and reproduced with unheard- of precision and strength, as by the surest and most in- fallible instruments. There is no other example — even if we count Menzel himself — of a similar power of analysis applied to the realm of facts. To unravel a detail from the confusion of nature Meisso- nier was without an equal. He had an eye constructed like the lens of a magnifying glass, or like the eye of a


tique and giving his pictures the false appearance of a primitive man capaljle of registering thousands of sen-

tableau de mu.sce. This criticism is perhaps unjust; sations which our civihzed retina no longer perceives,

sixteenth-century scenes have nothing better to show For example, he was successful in catching the move-

than "La Rixe" and "The Bravi"; and neither ment of a running horse, which no one has been able to

Stendhal nor M6rim(5e is reproached for his Renais- do since the caveman, and later the cinematograph

sanc« style of novels. Nevertheless it is true that confirmed the marvellous truth of his observations,

despite superficial resemblances Meissonier is far in- Only everything remained for him in a fragmentary

ferior to the Dutch masters. To compare him with state. His was the eye of a myopic, the eye of a fly,

Terborch is to pay him too great an honour. His cut like a crystal into millions of facets, the most

sharp facetted drawing, engraved with painful pre- astounding instrument known for decomposing every-

cision (cf . Fromentin, "LesMaitres d'autrefois", 1876, thing into its elements, for seeing distinctly into the

228), his barren, dry painting, swarming with trifles, world of the infinitesimal, but this prodigious power of

without aim or restraint, his indefinite analysis of a decomposition left him incapable of putting anything

host of insignificant objects, all grouped in the com- together again.

pass of an amazingly small space, go to make up a It is not astonishing that his " 1807" cost him four- .series of quaint harsh works, unattractive and useless, teen years of labour; he was no longer able to weld to- like those pieces of embroidery which distress us when gether his scraps, his extracts from nature. He scru- w-e realize the immense waste of labour they give proof tinized, rummaged, ransacked to infinity, and found of. What is wanting in the.se pictures is that which him.self powerless to give life to anything. He spoke constitutes the value of art, emotion and life. truly when he wished to do nothing but design and In 1859 Meissonier was charged to paint the "Battle when he dreamed of a picture which should be no of Solferino" (Louvre). This was the beginning of a more than a collection of sketches, of fragments and new series of works, which date from the Second Em- disconnected events, like the " Pens^es" of Pascal, yet pire, and in which the artist imdertook to celebrate giving at the same time the shock and the sensation of the glories of the First Empire. Renouncing his small life. The difference was, however, that the " Pens^es" interiors and subjects of fantasy he attempted histori- were to become a book. Meissonier, overwhelmed by cal and open air subjects, movements of crowds and his materials, never succeeded in producing a great armies, and set himself the task of painting the great work, and not even in giving the impression that he