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The Judgment of Paris

Ross King

Bond Street, 448 pages, $35

The world has long since passed judgment: Manet and his Impressionist disciples won the battle. Art as we know it began in 1863 with Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, the picnic that turned painting from public monument into personal pleasure.

The revolution in taste seems inevitable to us now -- why would people look at murky mythological scenes and vast canvases celebrating military slaughter when they could admire their own lives and their own times? But as Ross King makes clear in his remarkably detailed and decidedly unimpressionistic recreation of art's make-or-break decade, the triumph of modernity was no sure thing.

The Impressionist myth that emerged from this chaotic and dangerous age collapses the victory of the artistic vanguard into a quick skirmish or two: Dull bureaucrats refuse them entry into cultural pantheon, cheeky rebels show their wares in the Salon des refusés, le tout Paris sees the light. But in fact it wasn't until 1934 that Manet's naked lunch finally made its way into the Louvre, a hesitation in keeping with the way both guardians of culture and the general public treated him in the 1860s.

Manet rarely sold a painting in the decade following the raucous debut of Déjeuner, a painting that gave offence both morally (naked woman shamelessly sitting with men in non-mythical modern dress) and artistically (pudgy model and coarse brushstrokes both fail to meet beaux-arts ideal). Despite his rampant unpopularity, the new style of art was identified with populist urges that threatened the despotism of Napoleon III, and King's layered story is as much about the petty tyrant's back-and-forth dance with democracy as it is about the struggle of official Art to preserve its primacy.

Nothing that happened in these restless years escapes King's attention -- aeronauts fly balloons above the Seine, the arrival of photography remakes pornography, universal expositions introduce the world to petroleum and dynamite, advances in chemistry create a new range of pigments that makes Monet possible. In contrast with Manet's persistent failures, a painter of horses and heroes named Meissonier goes from strength to strength, his smug sense of place mirroring his country's misplaced pride.

We know how it ends: Meissonier forgotten, Manet enshrined in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris's touristy temple of Impressionism. There's only one flaw in posterity's final judgment. Manet never joined the Impressionist renegades -- he yearned too much for official acceptance.

 

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