The Judgment of Paris: Ross King

Packing bags to go back to Delhi. Tomorrow I must meet people and return the 3 million books I borrowed from them when I could not get out of the house.

Of this mountain I must describe two books (though the others were lovely too) simply because they were so different from my usual haunts.

Pop. 1280
by Jim Thompson is a macabre crime novel. As a reader you are set up to be hit by the spineless, naive first person narrative of Nick Corey, sherrif of the town with a population of 1280. He is bullied by his wife, the town's small-time baddies and laughed at by everyone else who knows him. He falls asleep during a short train ride from a neighbouring town, wakes up and before you realise it Nick Corey is doing the scariest things to people he does not like. Its a beautifully creepy crime fiction classic and wickedly funny in parts. A few days after you have read it you realise what skill the writer employed to keep the narrative as simple as he did.

Ross King's The Judgment of Paris is quite a different deal. This is a genial, well-informed but carefully researched history of Impressionism. To this end he tracks the lives of two artists: Manet and Ernest Meissonier. When I began reading the book I thought Meissonier who? And was more than slightly embarrassed when in the first chapter you read that Meissonier was at one point the highest paid artist in the world, the artist that the French nation and art establishment showered with awards, a man beyond criticism. A single painting of Meissonier could fetch more than what it took (at the time) to build elaborate chateaus.

This was when Manet had no hope of ever selling a painting and the word Impressionism (coined as an insult by a critic) was still ten years into the future. Crowds gathered at exhibitions to laugh at his paintings (such as The Luncheon in the Grass!!!!). As I read further I realised that my (perhaps yours as well) ignorance about Meissonier is the device the book uses to demonstrate how Manet and the Impressionist movement changed everything that was accepted about art. After decades of being reviled when Manet finally grew in stature, Meissonier was suddenly and viciously blanket-banned. Why did this inversion happen? Ross King is the best man to tell you.

Ross King is careful not to get derailed by tiresome speculation about bohemian lifestyles such as, "Was Manet's favourite boy model Leon, the son of his mistress Suzanne, actually his own son or Manet's father's son?" Why bother when he can give us images like that of hundreds of artists and sculptors carrying their paintings in carts and wheelbarrows on the streets of Paris in the first week of April with the hope of appearing in the' most important public art exhibition in France, the Salon to which the aam janta as well as the snootiest critics went to see what was up. (King tells us that the entry fee for the public to the Salon was one franc when even the poorest worker earned three francs a day. Which meant that the Salon was very far from being an exclusive event.Thousands went everyday to look at paintings.) King tells us how sculptors could be seen frantically doing last minute touch up jobs with a chisel on the road to the exhibition hall

As a reviewer points out we often hear that Manet or Cezanne was anti-establishment or revolutionary but most of us are really not sure why. This is the book that explains you and sends you racing to the Net to look up the paintings described.

The other nice thing about the book is the connections that King establishes between the literary and revolutionary events of the Second Empire with the world of these artists. Napoleon III, Zola, Baudelaire, Victor Hugo all feature in mad romps across the book. I am particularly cheered by King's bitchy remarks about Hugo since I have detested HIM since I was ten and attempted to read what the Americans call Les Miz


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