At the first glance at the title, The Judgment of Paris
, I automatically linked it with the Greek mythology of prince Paris and the famous beauty competition among three goddesses. I was confused reading the rest: Impressionism?
Well, it does connect to Impressionism. A drawing by Raphael on the judgment of Paris served as a source of inspiration for Edouard Manet's Le d��jeuner sur l'herbe
, one of the most controversial paintings in the 19th century. Manet, though himself denied, was considered the leader, originator of this new art movement called "Impressionism" in Paris in 1860s-70s.
But the book is not simply about the particular Le d��jeuner sur l'herbe
. The title, quite smartly, also seems to allude to the judgment of Paris as a city, a hub of culture and arts. Paris, France, and the art world in general, found itself at the brink of a new revolution. What to choose? How to decide? People struggle to comprehend the new art - no longer the finished, linear brushes with historical/mythological themes; but rather sketchy, "impressionistic" ones, featuring "vulgar" subjects of the contemporary time. On one side is the new, younger generation, misunderstood to be led by the widely ridiculed Manet (he did not); and the other is the more conservative, older artists represented by the highly successful Meissonier (he was more traditional, sure, but nevertheless was sympathetic towards young artists)along side with the ��cole des Beaux-Arts.
I was totally captivated by King's story telling. The book reveals the panoramic artistic life of 1860-70s Paris with enormous power. Artists, critics, politicians, businessmen, common people: all were thrown into the storm of art. It interestingly shows the reverse of the torrent: Meisonnier once so widely popular now disappears into history of art - almost unknown, Manet once so derided now monumental and revered.
King also points out such an interesting remark at the end of the book. It is about our art taste: how we are still virtually unchanged in our reluctance to accept the new and in our love of the past. Manet at his time was seen as too modern, choosing too controversial subjects, and thus unliked; while Meissonier was loved due to his constant reminding of the 18th century's lifestyle in his paintings. Now, in the 20th century, we seem to behave very much the same, looking at Impressionists' 19th century with a nostalgia. But funnily, we still laugh at the past, laugh at their stupidity not to recognize the talents, the greatness of these geniuses. Again, we are so very much the same.The Judgment of Paris
is a great book. I would recommend to anyone curious to figure out the arts life of the late 19th century in Paris. But what kept me from raising rating to 5 stars is that while this book is a powerful historical account, it is not an art analysis good enough. Ross King does demonstrate the simple, stark contrast between the two art styles, which is crucial to understanding this book. However, I find myself crave for deeper digging into some notable paintings - both in formal qualities and in their possible meanings, or at least into the artists' specific intentions/interpretations. Unfortunately, the book does not allow for such a level of depth.
Nevertheless, I'm decidedly a fan of Ross King. I will look forward to reading his two other art history books on Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.