During the past week or so, in my belated exploration of French academic painting, I stumbled upon a piece of work that really knocked me down and stomped on me. It's entitled The Barricade, rue de la Mortelleire, June 1848. It's not a huge painting, a mere 9"x12," almost a miniature, in fact, by the standards of its day. The artist I'd heard of before but never seen any of his work. And let me warn you, if you hate Bouguereau, you'll absolutely despise Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (pronounced MEZ-soan-AY). And I must say, that most of Meissonier's work I find merely interesting at best. But Barricade struck me for its timelessness. If ever there was painted a work demystifying, disembowelling, and denigrating war, this would be it. Meissonier subtitles it Souvenier of Civil War. Though painted in 1849, the scene could just as easily be one from any war set in an urban environment in the last 200 years.
What makes the work so striking is that it is so unlike anything else Meissonier painted. It's a street scene, hardly more than an alley really, with perhaps a dozen French partisans sprawled in bloody disarray behind a small pile of cobblestones obviously ripped up from the pavement. Were it a twentieth century image, one might imagine a tank having rolled over them mowing them down. The closest thing to this work in any of Meissonier's other paintings is his massive, Siege of Paris done some 20 years later. The lower half of that painting displays similar human carnage, though in a much too colourful romanticism echoing the upper half of the painting as it depicts the spirited defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. However Siege of Paris is fairly typical, romanticised, war-glory, history painting of the type Meissonier wallowed in during the last 20 years of his life when he took it upon himself to resurrect Napoleon from a much-deserved grave.
Meissonier was born in Lyons in 1815. While he was still a child, his parents moved to Paris where they found wealth in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals. Ernest began painting portraits of neighbourhood personages at the age of sixteen. He dutifully apprenticed in the family firm but by 1833 had persuaded his father to let him study art, though his actual time with local artist Leon Cogniet amounted to little more than four months. He was largely self-taught. His first Salon work came in 1834 when he exhibited Visit to the Burgomaster's. Early on, he appears to have supported himself doing book illustrations even as his fame gradually grew to the point that, by 1855, he was the most sought-after artist in all Paris. His singular gift seems to have been an almost microscopic eye for detail coupled with a work ethic of almost lunatic intensity. There seems to have been little in the way of imagination in any of his scenes. His late work has a decidedly military bent in the best (or worst) tradition of history painting. He died in 1891.
Though popular in his time, Meissonier is easy to dismiss as an academic hack. The vast majority of his painting is like neither Barricade nor The Siege of Paris. Most of it consists of small genre figures and scenes, many of them derived from his admiration of eighteenth century Dutch painters such as ter Borch, Mieris, and Gerard Dow. By today's standards, we'd mark them as being quaint, perhaps even "cute." Although Meissonier's important work is what we'd today call "tight" - regardless of size, marked by an incredible amount of detail - many of his genre works are, in contrast, surprisingly painterly as if they were merely quick colour sketches to be used in later works. That's the case with Barricade. The background is a fuzzy melange of boarded up shops. Smoke hovers in the upper reaches of the painting. That colour which survives the scourge of war is drab, subdued, limited to the clothes and blood of the dead. Photographed in black and white, the painting looks very much like combat photojournalism. It's not pretty, it's not glorious, and itís not neat, sweet, or noble. One might even guess from its title it was a scene Meissonier had stumbled upon first hand, perhaps even one that haunted his sleep - a true nightmare of war.