Nearly forgotten today, Ernest Meissonier was the darling of the French Salon public during much of the 19th century. People flocked to see his meticulously executed, almost photographically precise, often very small pictures of battles, horses, landscapes, contemporary personalities and genre scenes; and even so forward-looking an observer as Delacroix thought Meissonier's work as worthy to survive as anything then being produced. His canvasses sold for prodigious sums in the years following his death in 1891. The prices headed south soon enough, however, and Meissonier's reputation with them; if we remember him at all today it is likely to be for his attempt to exclude Courbet from the 1872 Salon, for his outspoken opposition to the Eiffel Tower, or for Degas's wicked mot that he was 'the giant of the dwarfs'. Only recently have signs of a new interest surfaced: the first comprehensive exhibition of his work was mounted (in his native city, Lyon) in 1993; the new 19th-century galleries of New York's Metropolitan Museum display his Friedland, 1807 in a prominent place; and now Marc Gotlieb has given us the first serious monograph to be devoted to him.
LRB 3 April 1997 | PDF Download