It is a newly acquired ambition of mine that, if I should ever visit Paris, I’ll stop in the Parc Meissonier to pay my respects to a now-forgotten painter who, in his now equally forgotten magnum opus, pulled off one of the most impressive triumphs of observation and presentation ever.
I am talking about the painting 1807 Friedland, which depicts one of Napoleon’s most celebrated military victories.
It is a relatively small work (about 1.36 metres high by 2.43 metres wide) over which Ernest Meissonier slaved diligently for almost 14 years. The result is astonishing precision in a depiction of cavalry horses in motion.
The painting was a sensation at the time of its showing in 1875, and, it was eventually sold to a wealthy American collector, for the highest price (some 400,000 francs) ever paid for a work by any living artist to that time.
Today, it hangs, not much regarded, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as a work of historical, though not particularly artistic, interest.
In his own time, though, Meissonier was the most respected painter in France, and possibly in all of Europe, renowned for his exactitude in rendering his subjects and, in particular, for his passion painting both horses and Napoleons.
A man with a biblical beard and enormous self-conceit, he was not much loved as a person, but respected – even venerated – as an artist even by the radically different, revolutionary Impressionist painters like Eduard Manet, Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne.
They admired him even though his artistic talents and proclivities were directly opposite theirs.
Where the Impressionists concentrated on rendering the “feel” or “impression” of a scene through expressive use of colour and brushwork, Meissonier was the acknowledged master of portraying what was before us to be seen, whether it would normally have been noticed by the perceiver or not.
When it came to rendering the appearance of the charging horses of a regiment of cuirassiers, it was not enough for Meissonier to paint those horses in the conventional pose used to represent galloping horses – forelegs stretched airborn forward, and back legs extended airborn backward.
Passionate as he was about horses (he, being rich, kept a personal stable of them, using as models in his paintings), he knew that horses did not really gallop like that.
His problem was, it is very difficult to see exactly what a horse is actually doing with its legs as it gallops; it all just happens too fast.
The “flying horse” convention might be sufficient for a painter content to portray the impression made by a running horse (and Manet, in fact, adopted that very convention for his semi-impressionist work The Races at Longchamp), but not for a determined literalist like Meissonier.
His problem was that he lacked the technology he needed to study how horses gallop.
Unbeknownst to him, there was an English photographer working in America who could have helped him; but they never met, and there is no evidence that Meissonier ever knew anything about this man’s work.
The man in question was Eadweard Muybridge, who in 1872 (three years before the completion of Meissonier’s painting) was contracted by a rich American horse owner to find a way to photograph a running horse, showing whether or not all four hooves actually left the ground at any point.
The inventive Muybridge managed to crack the problem by using 24 cameras, arranged along a track parallel to that of a running horse, and set to activate in very rapid succession.
Unfortunately for Meissonier, Muybridge only came up with this solution in June of 1878 – three years after 1807 Friedland was finally finished.
Meissonier’s low-tech solution to the problem was to build a tramway parallel to a racing track, and have himself pulled along on it on a small cart as he stared intently at the running legs of one of his horses, jockeyed by his painter-student son.
Astonishingly, and impressively, though, Meissonier’s powers of seeing were so finely tuned that his primitive methodology actually worked.
If you look at the two most noticeable charging horses in his painting – the brown one ridden by the sword-saluting regiment commander, and the white one ridden by the regimental trumpeter – you see their stances are almost identical to some of the ones captured on camera by Muybridge years later.
Whatever its current standing as a piece of art, 1807 Friedland is an enormously impressive effort in accurate, detailed perception, and skilled, painstaking rendition of that perception.
Meissonier’s great misfortune was that, when he was finally ready to display his masterwork to the world, that world had changed drastically.
France’s Second Empire under Napoleon III had been militarily defeated by the Prussians, and overthrown by a popular revolution that created the Third Republic; people did not have a lot of interest in military victories or old emperors.
Furthermore, the new school of painters – the Subjectivists and Impressionists – were winning the day in the battle of public taste; what had once been regarded as praiseworthy precision now looked like just a fussy lack of artistic imagination.
So 1807 Friedland now hangs in the Met these days, valued as a period piece of historical, not really artistic interest. And Meissonier’s commemorative statue, which once held pride of place in the Louvre itself, has been carted off to a little park in a sub-district of Paris.
Still, victories of any size or type, military or artistic, remain victories, even if they are forgotten.
Meissonier, stodgy, self-infatuated and artistically reactionary as he may have been, managed to take a photograph of a reality in the world many years before any photographer could do it.
That is no mean accomplishment, no matter how diminished his once illustrious reputation has become.
Maybe one day I will get to give a tip of my hat to him, in his unassuming little Parisian park.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie
who lives in Whitehorse.