759: The Judgment of Paris by Ross King

by Gerard


759.409034: King, Ross. The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism. New York: Walker and Company, 2006. 374 pp. ISBN 0-8027-1466-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts
  • 750: Painting and paintings
  • 759: Geographical or historical treatment
  • 759.4: France
  • +09034: 19th century

Dewey section 759 has a ton of books to choose from because it’s all about the history of painting, painters, and painting movements. Human beings have been painting since they first figured how to create pigments in caves. For every painter, there’s a unique way to painting something, but the world of 19th century France didn’t see it that way. They had strict rules for what was considered good painting and what didn’t pass muster. Ross King’s Judgment of Paris recounts the ten years that led to the first modern schism in the art world. On one side was the Salon de Paris, championed by Ernest Messonier, and the other were the Impressionists, founded by a scrappy, radical artist known as Eduard Manet.

The Judgment of Paris chronicles the parallel lives of Messonier and Manet to show how one railed against change and how the other helped to show the world a different way to look at itself. Manet’s movement started with treating everyday people as grand subjects for paintings. Up until then, the Salon de Paris standardized the techniques and subjects allowed for what was considered “high art” and the common folk were considered declasse. Manet, along with Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet, decided that, after having been rejected time and time again by the Salon de Paris, that they should establish their own Salon—the Salon des Refuses (The Salon of the Refused).

While this could be considered a tad petulant, it allowed the public to see the new movement in art. Instead of allowing line, contour, and historical grandiosity dominate the picture, the Impressionists focused on light, color, and atmosphere. Nowadays, this seems rather trivial, but in the 1860s, this was enough to cause a public outrage.

King’s writing is fun and moves along at a decent clip, much in the current style of history-as-a-novel. There are times where he gets very involved in the details of Parisian living, but its add atmosphere to help flesh out the intricate art happenings. Also, it’s a good way to get in backdoor info on the French authors Zola, Hugo, and Baudelaire. My only gripe about the book is that it needed more color illustrations. King’s descriptions are one thing, but having the paintings at hand really helps to get the history across.

Also, I used to consider myself fairly knowledgeable about art and art history. Once, on a family vacation to Rome, my parent gave me my own day to plan out and go to whatever I wanted. I chose to do a walking tour of the city to find many of the public sculptures of Gian Bernini and end the day at the Vatican Pinacoteca to view Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ (it was stunning). Until this book, I had never heard of Messonier or his fight against the Impressionist movement. I guess you really do learn something new every day.