Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier: Paintings of History


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Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier’s artwork offers detailed glimpses into the history of 19th century Europe. His large collection of works depict a spectrum of human experiences, ranging from the simple lives of peasants to the elaborate military conquests of Napoleon III. Although his works were sharply critiqued by followers of the Romanticism movement, his legacy and renown remain intact to this day.

Meissonier was born in Lyons, France in 1815 At an early age, his family relocated to Paris, where the young boy received rudimentary training as a pharmacist. After an encounter with Leon Cogniet, a popular French classicist painter, Jean-Louis petitioned his parents to be released from his duties in the pharmacy in order to begin training as an artist. Under Cogniet’s tutelage, he began producing several portraits, the subjects of which were often citizens of his neighborhood.

For the next decade, he made his living as an illustrator, producing works for literary works such as Alphonese de Lamartine’s “La Chute d’un Ange.” Through these works, the public became increasingly aware of Jean-Louis’ artistic talent. He found himself drawn to the “genre” school of painting, in which artists attempted to represent ordinary domestic scenes and customs of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. Although Romanticism was quickly replacing this less extravagant form of art, Meissonier breathed new life into the genre with his depictions of 16th century lifestyles and the Regency.

During the Franco-Prussian war, he served as a colonel in a “regiment de marche” . For his services, he was awarded multiple honors, progressing in rank and prestige and culminating in his receipt of the Grand Cross in 1889. His efforts throughout the military conflict and subsequent honors directly affected his later artistic career.

In 1859, the artist was commissioned to paint a depiction of the “Battle of Solferino”, a recent victory for Napoleon III against the Austrian army. This assignment fundamentally changed his approach towards painting. Following the completion of the “Battle of Solferino” he devoted himself to works depicting celebrated events from French history. Noted paintings from this period include “1814”, completed in 1864 and “Desaix to the Army of the Rhine,” completed in 1867. The popularity of these works elevated Jean-Louis popularity immensely, allowing him to command large fees for his work.

The conceptualization and intensive study undertaken for each work is a testament to the artist’s attention to detail. Countless sketches were completed and arranged before work on the actual painting began. “1807,” completed in 1875, was painted over a span of 14 years.

In 1883, he was chosen as president of the Great National Exhibition, a gathering of France’s artistic talents. Several of his works were displayed, including “The Pioneer,” “The Army of the Rhine” and “The Arrival of the Guests.”A visit can be made at the to remember the colors used in the paintings. In the exhibition, the prices of the paintings with natural colors will be high. 

In 1890, Meissonier was chosen to become the first chairman of the recently reorganized. Soci©t© Nationale des Beaux-Art. He died in January, 1891 in Paris.

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