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Lecture chez Diderot

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CAT 173. August Barry after Meissonier. Lecture chez Diderot. Probably published in New York, c. 1880. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

(Jean-Louis-) Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891) was largely self-taught. Like many of his early genre paintings, Lecture chez Diderot (1859) looks back in style to three seventeenth-century Dutch artists represented in Melville’s collection: Gabriel Metsu, Franz Meiris, and Gerard ter Borch (CAT 201, 203-05). Its subject looks back to the eighteenth-century lectures of Denis Diderot, whose scathing attacks on the art of Boucher, for example, had done much to denigrate the Rococo style and clear the way for the neo-classical Revolution in French art. Lecture chez Diderot (whose location is currently unknown) was one of Meissonier’s most famous paintings (at one time belonging to Baron Edmond de Rothschild). The original painting was exhibited and engraved many times during Meissonier’s lifetime; it was engraved by Augustin Mongin for the Universal Exposition of 1878 and reproduced that year in L’Art (pp. 184-85).

Melville’s copy of Lecture chez Diderot was etched by August Barry, an American engraver who specialized in etchings of “landscapes and genre scenes after French and American masters” and was active between 1879 and 1889 (Benezit 2006, 1:1213). Barry may have created this work at about the same time as his etching of Meissonier’s Corps de Garde, recorded in the print room of the New York Public Library as having been published in the late 1870s. Melville’s copy of John Mollett’s Meissonier (Sealts no. 360), published in New York in 1882, was another sign of the growing interest in Meissonier’s life and work in the United States.

Meissonier’s oil painting Lecture chez Diderot was hardly larger than the engraving itself (about eight inches high by ten inches wide). Mollett quotes this 1867 commentary by Charles Blanc: “On a canvas of a few centimeters, [Meissonier] presents us with a whole group of philosophers of the seventeenth century; amongst whom we seem to recognize Baron Holbach, Grimm, D’Alembert, and Diderot himself, with his friendly figure, his eye so prompt to brighten with the fire of genius.” Blanc emphasizes two highly appreciated elements of Meissonier’s genre scenes, his gift for characterization and attention to detail: “Diderot stands in the foreground, leaning upon a chair which he is balancing to and fro; another is bending over a manuscript and eagerly attentive; a third, in an abstracted mood, has thrown himself back in his chair, putting his little finger into his ear; a fourth, behind the table, is leaning against the library shelves, and the different bindings are distinguished, some of them faded and worn, and a row of small volumes, bound in red, with white labels, yellow with use” (34).

Because Meissonier was still highly active, and highly controversial, when Mollett published his book in 1882, Mollett does not attempt to offer a final judgment on this painter’s career. Granting that Meissonier’s artistic method “is, and will always be, detestable to one school of thought, and admirable to its opposite,” Mollett’s goal is to “contribute a few tumbrils of ammunition to either side” in “the conflict which will rage over his memory.” He therefore does give due attention to those contemporary critics who dismissed Meisonnier’s genre pieces as occupying “the niche of the infinitely little,” thereby creating a “new school of the Trivial.” Mollett himself is more sympathetic with those observers who see the “breadth and grandeur of Meissoniers's smallest panels,” whereas “David and his school had the art of imparting littleness to canvases of the greatest dimensions” (vi, vii, iv, 32-34, 41).

In response to those who argued that Meissonier’s paintings were too small in size to qualify as history paintings, Mollett cites a critic who declared the Lecture chez Diderot to be “the pictorial epitome of an epoch,” with “its group of eager encyclopaedists listening to a reading of the last new thing” (24). More than a century later, Marc Gotlieb offered Lecture chez Diderot as an exemplary case of Meissonier’s talent for “absorptive themes, paintings in which people are absorbed in mutually gratifying activity” (111). Melville’s copy of Barry’s etching conveys that absorptive quality while also giving minute attention to the position of hands, the expression of faces, the shine on shoes, and the spines of books on the shelves.

Although Meissonier’s early genre paintings were widely admired in Paris, he became a more controversial figure as he won increasingly conspicuous praise and patronage from the reigns of both Louis Philippe and Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III). Increasingly, for such writers as Baudelaire, Balzac, the Goncourts, and Zola, “Meissonier’s paintings epitomized the taste of the nouveaux-riches. His success after the 1850s increasingly made him a target for critics and younger artists in the Realist tradition, among them Degas, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec; attitudes hardened when Meissonier led the jury to exclude Courbet from the Salon of 1872 because of his political activities during the Commune of 1871.” Part of Meissonier’s success was institutional as well as pictorial. After being elected to the Academy of Beaux-Arts in 1861, he served as its president in 1876 and again in 1891. In 1889 he presided over the jury of the International Universal Exposition, and in 1890 he led the movement to create a new National Society for the Beaux-Arts (Hungerford, 68-69).

Meissonier’s pictorial ambitions grew alongside his increasing institutional power, most dramatically in series of large paintings addressing the military history of France. In 1859 he accompanied the staff of Emperor Louis Napoleon to Italy and witnessed preparations for the Battle of Solferino in which the forces of France allied with those of Savoy-Piedmont-Sardinia defeated the occupying Austrian forces. Meissonier documented this transformative victory in the Italian War of Independence in his first major military painting, Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino, exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1864. At the 1864 Salon Meissonier also exhibited his second major military painting, 1814, The Campaign of France. This depiction of the retreat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army under a gloomy gray sky after being defeated by Prussian and Russian forces at Laon in Northern France is still highly valued today for its stark realism (fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Ernest Meissonier, 1814, The Campaign of France, oil on canvas, 1864. Musée d’Orsay.

The above painting of the 1814 retreat was the first in a cycle of five paintings on the military career of Napoleon I that Meissonier had begun to conceive in 1860. The only other one to be completed was 1807, Friedland, celebrating a victory in East Prussia at the height of Napoleon’s military success. This painting had been scheduled for the Salon of 1864, and again for the International Exhibition in 1867, but it was not completed until 1875, after Meissonier had made “hundreds of preparatory studies for it, including drawings and sculptural models” (Miller). Napoleon Bonaparte is conspicuous in the middle distance on his white horse as he and his officers review the cuirassiers charging beneath him from the viewer’s right (fig. 2).

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Figure 2. Ernest Meissonier. 1807, Friedland, oil on canvas, 53 ½ x 95 ½ inches, 1861-75. Acquired by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1887.

In addition to being “the largest and most ambitious painting by an artist renowned for meticulously rendered cabinet pictures,” Meissonier’s 1807, Friedland was one of the most expensive and celebrated French paintings to cross the Atlantic while Melville was building his print collection in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1876, the New York department store magnate Alexander Stewart bought the painting, “sight unseen,” for the “then astronomical sum of $60,000.” This sale was reported in Harper’s Weekly and a variety of art magazines, and the painting got new attention when it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1887 (Miller). Melville’s 1882 copy of Mollett’s book included considerable commentary on all three of Meissonier’s major military paintings (50-51, 53-54, 64-65). Mollett also noted that “Mr. Stewart, of New York” had paid “about 300,000 francs” for 1807, Friedland (55). One expects that Melville would have seen this painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the last four years of his life, when it would have been the perfect complement to his copy of Barry’s recent etching after Lecture chez Diderot.

Melville certainly had European military history very much in mind while writing and revising two major projects left uncompleted at his death. Billy Budd, Sailor takes place on a British man-of-war in the summer of 1797 during the extended war with France. Although this novella is an “inside narrative” primarily concerned with relations within British ship, consciousness of the French enemy is never far away. Recent mutinies on British ships have been ”ignited into irrational combustion as by live cinders blown across the Channel from France in flames.” Captain’s Vere’s decisions as commander of the British ship Bellipotent are presented in the context of the sublime leadership of Lord Nelson in the English fleet and that of Napoleon at the height of his “unexampled conquests.” Captain Vere’s ship finally does engage with the French enemy after its tragic internal action has played out with Billy swinging from a yardarm. The Bellipotent does defeat the French Athéiste in a battle near Gibraltar, but Captain Vere dies soon after being injured in the action. “Unhappily, he was cut off too early for the Nile and Trafalgar,” Admiral Nelson’s glorious victories over Napoleon in 1798 and again in 1805. The narrator’s final word on Captain Vere’s last battle, echoing a sentiment Melville had expressed in White-Jacket, is that Athéiste is “the aptest name . . . ever given to a war-ship” (NN BBO 12, 14-15, 21, 69).

The poetic diptych recently christened “Parthenope” by the NN editors of Billy Budd Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings is not nearly as well known as Billy Budd, nor is it so primarily concerned with military affairs. On the surface, the two components of this ambitious diptych appear to be as different in subject and style as Meissonier’s Lecture chez Diderot and the Battle of Solferino, first shown together at the Paris Salon of 1864. “At the Hostelry,” in fact, reads like Melville’s own poetic variation on Meissonier’s pictorial recreation of the philosophical discourse he imagined among Diderot and his colleagues. In Melville’s imagined  colloquy, Old Master painters are debating the nature of the pictorial picturesque. Melville’s painters, like Meissonier’s philosophers, are gathered closely around a table, speaking animatedly in the manner of figures in the Dutch genre scenes that had inspired Meissonier’s painting. Dutch genre painters are ably represented among Melville’s assembled Old Masters, with Steen, Brouwer, Teniers, Ter Borch, Hals, and Rembrandt making a strong case in their words and expressions for paintings in their own commonplace style being of equal value to the more elevated subjects and aesthetic of their Italian and French counterparts (NN BBO 152-166).

“An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba,” the second half of Melville’s poetic diptych, is an expansive narrative in an outdoor setting, rambling from one episode to another across the picturesque landscape of Naples and its environs. The narrator of this poem has a sequence of encounters with street performers such as one might see in genre paintings by Meissonier or his Dutch predecessors, but these encounters are overshadowed by the oppressive occupying forces of “Bomba,” King Ferdinand of Spain, who has tyrannized over the residents of Naples for decades. Wherever the narrator turns, he sees soldiers in the twisting streets or artillery batteries high above them. The pleasures of the picturesque genre scenes contrast with the oppression of the enforced occupation in a waking stalemate such as Melville experienced himself during his visit to Naples in February 1857 (see our extended discussion under CAT 120).

A pictorial diptych requires some discernible element of commonality or contrast to justify its togetherness. Melville attempted to unite the disparate elements of his poetic diptych by invoking the stirring history of the Italian War for Independence in which the allied forces of France and Savoy-Piedmont-Sardinia defeated the Austrian occupiers at Solferino in 1859, opening the way for Garibaldi’s Red Shirts from Sicily and their allied forces to drive the Spanish occupiers from Naples in 1860, paving the way for the creation of Italy as an independent, sovereign state in 1861. Melville invoked that history by devoting the entire first stanza of “At the Hostelry” to the War of Independence that had finally made Italy into “One state, one flag, one sword, one crown.” In doing so, he celebrated not only the military prowess of Garibaldi but the intellectual and philosophical force of Cavour of Savoy, the diplomatic leader whose “wise statesmanship . . . / Made peace itself subserve the war.” Through Cavour’s diplomacy “Art’s Holy Land [was] redeemed,” giving Melville the poet an excellent transition to the discourse among Old Master painters in the body of the poem. Melville’s narrator returns to Garibaldi, the “the Red-Shirt Champion,” at the end of “At the Hostelry,” and then again at the end of “An Afternoon in Naples,” where Garibaldi drives “Bomba’s son” from his “toppling throne” (NN BBO 149-52, 165-66, 202).

The way in which Melville employs Italy’s War of Independence as a link between his indoor genre scene of Old Master painters debating the Picturesque and his open-air sequence of picturesque Neapolitans living under military occupation resembles a pattern that Mollett documents beginning at the Salon of 1864, when Meissonier exhibited Lecture chez Diderot alongside his first two major battle scenes, the Battle of Solferino and 1814, The Campaign of France. Those three paintings were seen again at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1867, which Mollett presents as “the culminating incident of the Empire” as well as “the triumph of the career of M. Meissioner” (65).

Although Meissonier’s power and influence continued to grow during the last two decades of his life, his artistic reputation “declined rapidly” after his death in 1891. Only since the 1970s has there been “renewed appreciation for his historical importance” (Hungerford 69). In 1996, Marc Gotlieb emphasized the degree to which paintings such as Lecture chez Diderot, inspired by “Dutch and Flemish genre painting of the seventeenth century,” challenged “the academic doctrine of the hierarchy of genres” with "a broader and more subjective aesthetic keyed to the diversity of human experience. At the same time, their manifest naturalism allowed Meissonier to avoid the literary and exotic excesses of the Romantic painters, so much so that he could seem to have forged an alternative to the sterile contrast between rival schools” (13). Such an aesthetic keyed to the “diversity of human experience” would have appealed to Melville’s eclecticism as a collector, and that aesthetic was well represented in the thirteen engravings that accompanied an engraved portrait of Meissonier himself in Melville’s copy of Mollett’s book. Several of those engravings, like Lecture chez Diderot, depicted people reading books, thinking, or conversing (pp. 8, 19, 49). One expects that Melville, who also died in 1891, would have shared Meissonier’s complaint that “There are no readers nowadays. . . . Eighteenth-century men read ‘good books’ in ‘fine bindings,’ [but] if I were to paint a modern Reader, I should have to put a newspaper in his hand, and to furnish his shelves with pamphlets not worth the trouble of binding” (Gotlieb 115).

The most thorough and effective reconsideration of Meissonier’s artistry and legacy so far in the twenty-first century is Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism (2006). This book begins with the chapter “Chez Meissonier” (1-12). King toggles between Meissonier and Manet in alternating chapters as their fortunes ebb and flow in close proximity to each other throughout the artistic revolution of the 1860s and into the early 1870s. King complicates the modern art-historical view of Meissonier a “villain, an evil genius who among his various sins, frustrated the career of Edouard Manet,” with a sympathetic examination of Meissonier’s own evolving artistic achievement and civic engagement while also demystifying some of the uncritical adulation commonly granted to Manet and other Impressionists. King’s eye for ironies, contradictions, and inconsistencies is as keen his eye for pictorial expression in a cultural context. King acknowledges that Meissonier’s genre paintings inspired by Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century could be seen by some as irrelevant to life in the mid-nineteenth century. But he also suggests that much of their remarkable success came from the welcome respite they provided from the social and political convulsions France had endured earlier in the same century. Moreover, King suggests that paintings by Messonier’s Impressionist contemporaries that had once seemed so radical in their depiction of “modern life” (one example he cites is “Monet’s parasol-clutching woman wading through a field of poppies”) have themselves served a similar, uncritical nostalgic function in the wake of the World Wars of the twentieth century (370-72).

One measure of King’s relative even handedness in addressing his two protagonists is that eight of his 45 black-and-white images are devoted to Meissonier, as opposed to twelve for Manet. Three of the eleven color plates are devoted to Meissonier, as opposed to four for Manet. King’s deep admiration for Meissonier’s artistry is nowhere more evident than in his examination of his battle scenes, which account for all three of his color plates after paintings by Meissonier (plates 1A, 1B, and 2B). Not only is The Campaign of France “diabolically complex and exquisitely executed”; this image of Napoleon leading his defeated troops is also “one of the most satisfying images of motion in the history of art” (128). The motion of the cuirassiers cutting across the foreground of Friedland is equally compelling. King explains that Meissonier achieved this image not only by riding his own horse alongside cuirassiers from the French army near his home at Poissy; he actually built a “miniature railway” on his own land so he could ride in its carriage and give his full attention to the movement of a horse and rider. Ten years before Eadweard Muybridge “finally managed to use a high-speed camera to capture a horse’s motion photographically,” Meissonier “succeeded in decomposing and noting ‘in a flash’ the most rapid and complex action of the horse’s flying legs” (250-51).

The Campaign of France, after being exhibited in Paris in 1864 and 1867 and in Vienna in 1873, was in a private collection in France throughout Melville’s lifetime. He could have known it only through verbal descriptions such as he read in Mollett’s book. In addition to reading about Friedland in Mollett’s book, Melville would also have been able to see the painting itself if he visited the New York Metropolitan Museum during the last four years of his life. After the painting was purchased by Henry Hilton for donation to the Metropolitan Museum on March 25, 1887, it was already listed in the 10¢ Hand-book for visitors to the West Galleries and Great Hall of the Museum for November 1887 to April 1888. Not only was Meissonier’s Friedland, 1807 listed as being on display in the Second Western Gallery. Its listing as no. 65 in the Hand-book was accompanied by two-page letter Meissonier had written from his home in Poissy, France, on January 27, 1876 to Mr. A. T. Stewart of New York, who had purchased the painting upon completion in 1875 (Hand-book no. 6; November 1877 to April 1888, pp. 14-15).

In the first page of that letter (fig. 3 below) Meissonier indicates how difficult it is to make “a last adieu” to “a picture which has been for so long a time the life and joy of my studio.”  Because persons some had been “unfairly” critical of the painting, Meissonier wants to indicate his true intentions. “I did not intend to paint a Battle—I wanted to paint Napoleon at the zenith of his glory; I wanted to paint the love, the adoration of the soldiers for the great Captain in whom they had faith, and for whom they were ready to die.” Moreover, “I had previously represented in the picture ‘1814’ the heartrending end of the Imperial Dream—those men, only recently intoxicated with glory, now shown exhausted, and no longer believing in their invincible chief. . . . No shade should be upon the Imperial face, to take from him the epic character I wished to give him. The battle, already commenced, was necessary to add to the enthusiasm of the soldiers, and make the subject stand forth, but not to diminish it by saddening details. All such shadows I avoided, and presented nothing but a dismounted cannon and some growing wheat which would never ripen. This was enough” (Hand-book no. 6; November 1877 to April 1888, p. 14).

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Figure 3. First page of 1876 letter from Ernest Meissonier to A. T. Stewart printed in Hand-book No. 6 (November 1877 to April 1888); Collection of Paintings and Sculpture in the West Galleries and Grand Hall,  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, p. 14. For the rest of this letter on p. 15, see the reproduction on the catalog layer of our Figure 3.

Each successive Hand-book for works on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Herman Melville’s death in September 1891 not only listed Meissonier’s Friedland, 1807 but reprinted the full text of the 1876 letter declaring the artist’s affection for the work, his intention in creating it, and other elements I have not cited from the above commentary. If Melville did see the highly detailed painting during the last four years of his life, he probably also saw the artist’s 1876 letter in the Museum’s inexpensive Hand-book. His memory of that eight-foot-wide painting with its cuirassiers cutting across the foreground as they looked back to Napoleon may have influenced the imagery of the poem entitled “A Battle-Picture” that he was still revising at the time of his death.

Three mounted buglers laced in gold,
      Sidelong veering, light in seat,
High on the crest of battle rolled.
      Ere yet the surge is downward beat,
The pennoned trumpets lightly hold—
      Mark, how they snatch the swift occasion
      To thrill their rearward invocation.
While the sabres, never coy,
      Ring responses as they ride;
      And, like breakers of the tide,
All the mad plumes dance for joy! (NN BBO 248)

As the poem proceeds from top to bottom, so does Friedland, from right to left depict one “mounted bugler laced in gold” who is “sidelong veering” with “a pennoned trumpet lightly held” as “sabres” slice through the sky and “mad plumes” do “dance for joy . . . like breakers of the tide.” Beyond the imagery deployed, Meissonier and Melville were each trying to create, in their separate artistic genres, “satisfying images of motion.”  

King points out that “not even The Campaign of France, Meissonier’s master class on heaving human and equine bodies in motion, could have prepared visitors of the thundering gallop across the canvas of triumphant cuirassiers” in Friedland. Not only was this painting’s composition “a thrilling one, plunging spectators headlong into the scene. Here, for the first time, were all of the extraordinary virtues with which Meissonier had made his name—the trademark dexterity of brush, the microscopically precise details, the rigorously anatomical details and exquisitely choreographed movements of horses and riders. The painting repaid the closest inspection, yielding up such infinitesimal details as the bulging veins on the legs of Napoleon’s white charger and the poppies—a few dashes of red—crushed beneath the hooves of the stampeding cuirassiers” (345).

The closest literary equivalent I have “seen” to Meissonier’s ability to combine the plunging thrust of choreographed bodies in motion with “microscopically precise” observation of “anatomical details” is Melville’s depiction of the furious liquid action in which the whaleboats from the Pequod pursue the chased White Whale in the three-day chase the ends Moby-Dick (chapters 133-135). To fully appreciate the degree to which Meissonier has dexterously combined powerfully choreographed motion with the minutest anatomical precision, click on figure 2 of this entry and use the Zoom function on the catalog level to examine the canvas in detail.