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Ross King’s Lasting Impression

In a culture that lavished as much attention and respect on painters as any before or since, Ernest Meissonier was France's most celebrated practitioner of the art. His painstakingly detailed scenes of Napoleon at war earned raves from critics and unheard-of sums from international collectors. Meissonier's renown was such that organizers of the annual Paris Salon stationed bodyguards around his work to protect it from the crowding masses—23,000 paying spectators each day, or close to a million during the six-week exhibit. Ross King

Meanwhile, a group of artists at the Café Guerbois believed the time had passed for romantic, moral histories. Three centuries after Michelangelo and Raphael, this new generation would pull the establishment (kicking and screaming) out of the Renaissance and into the modern world. Among the leaders of the movement, Edouard Manet perhaps attracted the most attention. His work, like Meissonier's, needed protection from the Salon's passionate crowds, but for altogether different reasons. "Never has a painting excited so much laughter, mockery, and catcalls," one critic wrote of Olympia, Manet's contribution to the 1865 Salon. A writer for Le Figaro added, "You scarcely knew whether you were looking at a parcel of nude flesh or a pile of laundry."

In Brunelleschi's Dome, Ross King took readers to Florence to witness the unlikely, unfathomable construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral's dome, the largest in the world (five hundred years later, still). Next, National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling brought the vaults of the Sistine Chapel—and their painter—to colorful life. And this after two acclaimed novels, besides.

The Judgment of Paris is King's most compelling book to date. Rich with period detail, populated at every turn by notable characters, King's latest delivers a riveting portrait of nineteenth-century Paris—on the streets and in cafés, from the Tuileries to the battlefield. By the time Manet wins over the nation—his painting of a bearded, contemporary man smoking a pipe and drinking beer sets off a "Bon Bock" craze, complete with knock-off reproductions, a theme restaurant, and even a Bon Bock Society—if you're not cheering along, you'll at least be shaking your head at the revolution afoot, and its hint of twentieth-century culture to come.

Dave: After two books about the Italian Renaissance, what brought you to nineteenth-century France?

Ross King: It was the same impulse that originally took me to the Italian Renaissance. In those books I was looking at two particular cities, Florence in Brunelleschi's Dome and Rome in Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, and the way in which artistic changes occurred in a place and time related to particular movements or individuals. In The Judgment of Paris, I'm bringing to a conclusion that story of perspective; the manner of painting developed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy draws to a close in the third quarter of the nineteenth century in Paris.

There was a critical mass in Paris in the 1860s and 1870s, as there had been hundreds of years earlier in Florence and in Rome. You had artists working with one another, competing against one another, and really transforming the practice of art. In many ways, the Impressionists were repudiating the sort of painting Michelangelo and Raphael were famous for. So you could say I'm book-ending the original story.

Dave: Do you have any pet theories to explain how so many incredible artists could wind up together in a time and place, in Italy and then in Paris? Was it pure chance?

King: That's one thing I've been trying to explore in these books, and I honestly don't have an answer.

In the Italian Renaissance, there was an apprentice system, master and apprentice, so there could be a very direct handing-down of information from one person to another. If you had a brilliant draftsman like Domenico Ghirlandaio teaching Michelangelo, you'd end up with a very proficient student who could then go on and develop his own genius. To a lesser extent, the system was there in nineteenth-century Paris: the acolyte system. You would apprentice with someone, learn your trade, and earn your way up.

But that has been widespread. Every country has had that in one way, shape, or form. So why in Florence, a city of 30,000 people, did all of these artistic geniuses arise over the course of fifty or seventy-five years? Why then in Paris, coming together in the 1860s, in one particular spot, the Café Guerbois... What brought them there?

Part of it, I suppose, is that you develop a critical mass, and, if you're trying to define it socially, that makes for a very good support group. The Impressionists would sit around talking about what Manet called "Art with a capital A." They were able to test their ideas and rebel against something. Maybe that's part of it, too: You need something to rebel against. They certainly found it in the 1860s.

Dave: Impressionism didn't arise from a vacuum. The plight of the Second Empire, Napoleon III, is central to The Judgment of Paris.

King: That's another way of looking at the previous question. Why did it happen in Paris in the 1860s? Why did new artistic practices take place then?

What were they painting? They were painting the external world, and the external world was changing at that time with new boulevards being built by Napoleon III. Gas lamps replaced oil lamps, making nightlife much more possible. Twenty new parks opened in the center of Paris, bringing the countryside in for leisured Parisians. By the 1850s and 1860s, you had a different way of experiencing the world, and you would expect art to develop accordingly.

Dave: Over and over in your books, we see scientific advances driving the changes in art. Brunelleschi made many of those advances, himself, which goes a bit beyond what a typical artist is able to accomplish. You credit photography as one influence on Manet. Meanwhile, new pigments were being created in labs, which opened a world of possibilities to painters like Claude Monet.

King: That's right. The nineteenth century was a period of great chemical change, among other kinds of change. Chemistry moved forward with huge leaps and bounds. Suddenly there were new pigments available, so that you could create more intense colors. Also, around the same time, a couple other inventions that seemed very small actually did change the way painters worked: first, the invention of the tin tube in which to keep your paint. That was patented only in the 1820s. People experimented with other forms before that, but the tried and true method was the pig's bladder. You would put your dry paints in that, add a bit of oil, mix them up, and then you could take that with you abroad or into the countryside. But it wasn't nearly as convenient, as you can imagine, as having a tube of paint that you can take the screw cap off —another new invention—squeeze out a bit on your palette, and go to work.

Related to that and around the same time was the portable easel. Michelangelo never had a portable easel; Sir Joshua Reynolds never had a portable easel. That only comes about in the early part of the nineteenth century. What that makes possible, of course, as does the train, which comes along at the same time, is now painters can go into the countryside, set up their easels, and begin painting nature. It's not surprising that you'll get someone like Claude Monet, who is absolutely obsessed with doing that sort of painting, observing the effects of nature at different times of day in different weather conditions.

Dave: Twenty-three thousand people would attend the annual Salon in a typical day.

King: Numbers that most museum curators today, even at large museums, would give their right arms for. Fantastic numbers of people would flock in.

Dave: It's as if those Salons, and maybe art in general, held a place in the culture similar to sports today. They were civic gatherings.

King: That's a really good analogy: the football stadium, where people come together in incomparable numbers. You have hundreds of thousands of people coming to the Salons in the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, and their behavior in some ways was not dissimilar to the behavior of football fans.

You could cheer for the person you liked and boo or jeer the person you didn't. Unfortunately for Manet, he received the latter kind of treatment. From all the contemporary accounts, it does appear that people did try to physically assault his canvasses when they went on display. There was that same mentality that you would get at a sporting event. It was mass entertainment. It was for the public. It wasn't highbrow.

Some of the paintings may have been aimed self-consciously at a very literate, highbrow part of the Parisian population, but that's not to say that they couldn't be appreciated and weren't appreciated by washerwomen, laundresses, scrap merchants, people like that, who according to documents we have went in with everyone else to have a look at what was going on and formed their own opinions about what they liked and disliked.

Dave: You mentioned some of the barbs that Manet had to contend with. It was so unbelievably snarky. Critics could be brutal.

King: The poison pen seems to have been invented at that time for insulting the painters, insulting their art. It does appear that one painter, Baron Gros, committed suicide in the 1830s after some particularly nasty reviews.

There were horrible ad hominem attacks made on painters, not only Manet. He's the one we really know about, but painters that we now think of as great titans of nineteenth-century art like Eugene Delacroix had horrible things written about their painting. Massacre of Khios was called the Massacre of Painting. There were horrible caricatures of it. People were threatening to amputate his hands so he couldn't paint.

There's a good side to people taking art seriously—they weren't apathetic to it, they paid attention—but there was also the downside, the spiteful nature, the horrible treatment that could be meted out to an artist if he didn't quite measure up to the orthodoxy of the day.

Dave: You use the annual Salon as a framework for the book. Did you perceive them as the skeleton all along?

King: Inevitably, the Salons established the narrative of the book because they were the battleground for the new painting versus the old. If you were a young artist trying to make your way in the world, the only place you could prove yourself was at the Salon. If you didn't get in, no one would see your paintings, therefore no one would buy your paintings. You had to make a frontal assault on the Salons if you wanted to get in. Of course, that meant you had to get past the jury. You had to prove yourself to the twelve jurors or eighteen jurors, however many there happened to be in that particular year, and try to convince them of your merits.

Because the Salon was so important to Manet—he always believed that was the only place he could make his reputation—I knew that would underpin the book as a whole.

Dave: My favorite quote in the book comes from Baudelaire, who inflated his reputation by creating a rumor that he'd killed his father and then eaten the body. He boasts, "I am swimming in dishonor like a fish in water!"

Along the way, in your research and writing, did you fall for some of the smaller characters in the book?

King: I did. In the case of Baudelaire, I already knew a fair bit about him, so he was less of a surprise. He's a very gratifying character to write about. He didn't care about public opinion. The more he was attacked, the more he loved it. Whereas Manet, who really was his best friend, was the opposite; he could not take criticism, and he wanted public acceptance.

A character I thought at first was going to be minor but loomed ever larger as I continued to write was Gustave Courbet, the realist painter. When I began the book, I didn't know a lot about him. I knew a number of his paintings, but I wasn't that taken by them. The more I studied Courbet, the more interesting I found him as a person. I found him extremely appealing. He was a terrible braggart and self-promoter, but there was something quite endearing about him.

I've now reached the point where I seek out Courbet canvases if I can. I think they're fantastic. Maybe you're not supposed to respond to art in this way, but I always respond to it more congenially, the more I know about the painter and what he or she is going through as the painting was being done.

Dave: That's a very granular way of addressing the ultimate impact of a book like this. We were talking in the office last week about how our popular culture is inundated with the Impressionists. They're everywhere, on every college dormitory wall...

King: They're playing Vegas right now. There's an exhibit at the Bellagio Hotel.

Dave: You're nobody until you play Vegas.

King: It's a great exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but it seems mind-boggling that a group of painters that could not get their work shown in Paris less than a hundred fifty years ago is now about to do Vegas. You're right. The popularization of them as a worldwide phenomenon is nothing short of amazing.

Dave: It takes a book like this to make them respectable again among a certain crowd. The tendency now is to dismiss them because they're so popular. But as you say, your appreciation for Courbet grows as you come to understand the context in which he made those paintings. When you learn that Monet was among the first to use these pigments and that it repeatedly cost him a place at the Salon, it helps you appreciate his achievement. Just looking at the canvases, you couldn't know that he was breaking ground, or why. That knowledge can't help but increase your appreciation.

King: I wanted to take readers back to a place and time where these images were shocking. To use your example of the dormitory... It was said that some of the paintings of that time were suitable only for the walls of brothels. To go from a brothel to such widespread popularity...

I read a statistic somewhere, years ago, before I was writing the book— and I was never able to come upon it again—that something like four percent of all American homes have an Impressionist print somewhere in them. That's a lot of prints. To go from the opprobrium of their day to their current popularity is unexampled in history.

The art of the Renaissance is popular now, but it was also quite popular then. Michelangelo had enormous difficulties with the Sistine Chapel, but when it was unveiled he didn't have art critics saying, "This is rubbish. Let's knock it down." There really is no artistic movement in history that faced such horrible attacks and yet went on to become a global phenomenon.

I wanted to take the reader back before the acceptance. That would come at the end of the book, in the conclusion. I wanted to work my way forward from a time when Manet's Olympia was so shocking that women would faint and men would try to batter it with their canes. I wanted to try to resurrect a world that was so different from ours in its artistic tastes that we can understand how that might happen.

Dave: Will Meissonier ever regain a stature even remotely resembling what he enjoyed during his lifetime?

King: There is no real way back for him. There's not a huge call for Napoleonic paintings. And he'll never have the kind of success that he had because he really was the World's Greatest Artist—capital W, capital G, capital A. He'll never come close to that again.

The pendulum will swing back a little, or maybe it has, in terms of his craftsmanship. He was a brilliant craftsman. Whatever else you say about him—you can dislike him as a person, you can dislike his subject matter—he took meticulous care over his painting. People who appreciate craft in art, or people for whom art means craft, take their hats off to Meissonier. You have to admit that he was as competent in that as anyone else.

Nowadays, we want more than that from art. Even in his own lifetime, people were saying, "There has to be more than doing elegant little scenes with a very dexterous brush." We want art that pushes boundaries into very different areas. Nevertheless, I think there is still a small niche for that sort of art, and Meissonier fills it in spades.

Dave: When people think of Michelangelo, they think: genius, artist, craftsman. It's shocking to consider that he was absolutely unqualified to paint the vault of the Sistine Chapel.

King: Right. He was asked to work in the most difficult medium of the Renaissance, and he hadn't worked in that style for almost twenty years.

Dave: And it was the Pope asking, so it's hard to say no. Though he tried.

King: He did. He fled under the cover of night. He left in a huff, which was his favorite form of transportation, as they say. It took a couple of papal bulls and an audience with the Pope to get him to go back and do it.

Quite understandably, he felt unqualified for it. There was a very real possibility he would fail. He would have been aware that in 1504-5 Leonardo tried to do a mural on the wall of the Hall of the Great Council in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and he was unable to do it. It literally crumbled off the wall. If Leonardo had failed, surely Michelangelo could fail as well. That would have meant the end of his artistic reputation. The stakes were very high.

As I say in the book, he thought it was a conspiracy against him. This offer to paint the vault of the Sistine Chapel had all the hallmarks of a plot to discredit his artistic reputation in Rome and bring him ruin. That's why he fled. He was a sculptor, not a painter.

Dave: Michelangelo used men, and only men, as models, even when he was sculpting or painting a woman. It seems so counter-intuitive that the greatest artist of the human body would handicap himself that way. Why wouldn't he work from the actual subject?

King: He could have used female models. At certain points in history, in certain countries, a male painter was not allowed to, or not supposed to, paint or sculpt a nude woman. There was moral impropriety. None of that existed in the Rome of the sixteenth century. Raphael used women who often became his mistresses. Benvenuto Cellini, the great goldsmith and sculptor, also did. There were occupational hazards: Cellini impregnated one and got syphilis from the other, or so he claimed. But the practice was perfectly acceptable.

Michelangelo could have used women as models. We don't have him on record as saying why he didn't, but I think he had imbibed the neo-Platonist theory at the academy of Lorenzo de' Medici, a number of years earlier, which believed the female body was inferior to the male. Godliness, or perfection, was captured in the male body, so the male nude was the expression of the ideal.

Today, we have a sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink response, as we see it through a post-Freudian lens, but I'm not certain we can say altogether this was wish fulfillment, that they weren't being sincere when they said this. It does perhaps seem to be an explanation of why Michelangelo used men.

It did handicap his art. His figure of Eve in the Sistine Chapel is not completely convincing because she really does have the shoulders of a linebacker and breasts that look like tennis balls. His women are not nearly as good as his men.

Dave: He had to design the scaffolding for the chapel before he could start painting. As if the frescoes weren't enough.

King: You had to be a jack-of-all-trades during the Renaissance. All of the great painters and sculptors were able to work in any number of different fields. That was how you made your reputation as one of the greats. That was what motivated Raphael to get his commission in the Vatican apartments at the same time Michelangelo was working in the Sistine Chapel; he'd done brilliant portraits and altarpieces in Florence for the previous couple of years, but he knew he could only make his reputation if he worked in fresco. And in order to work in fresco, you had to be a jack-of-all-trades.

You had to solve logistical problems. You weren't working on a three-foot by five-foot canvas. You were working, usually, upside-down, on a curved surface with windows and corners and things like that to take into account. And you had to supply, as Michelangelo did, your own building materials, and figure out how to build the support. You had to bring in plasterers. You really were the foreman of the work.

That's why we can appreciate Michelangelo's effort even more. At the time, it was the largest fresco ever painted, and there was no room for error— he was doing it for the Pope, and Pope Julius of all people, who was not going to tolerate anything less than perfection.

Dave: Manet copies the pose from The Creation of Adam almost exactly for Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, which ends up becoming one of his groundbreaking works. Everyone who saw his painting was going to pick up the reference, which would only draw more attention to what he'd changed.

King: It was very controversial. In The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo was painting what was a believable scene of creation. That's what Adam would have looked like; that's what God-the-father would have looked like, with a cape and the angels, the cherubs under his wing. When Manet worked on that, he was paying tribute to Michelangelo and Raphael. (In some ways he was taking the image from Raphael as much as or more than from Michelangelo because it was from the Raphael print that he took Michelangelo's image.)

Manet was tipping his hat to them but also maybe thumbing his nose at them. He was updating them in a tongue-in-cheek way, saying, "This is modern life. This is what the forms of the past are worth to us now. They're worth something, but we have to create our own images of it and our own way of painting." Therefore the figure of Adam in Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe was posed by Manet's brother. There's something less than ideal and noble about this young man sprawling on the grass wearing a Left Bank, bohemian, student attire.

Dave: Is there any particular detail that stands out for you from Brunelleschi's Dome? The whole concept of a project that takes a hundred forty years to complete is hard for me to grasp.

King: When I give lectures, to contextualize the building of a cathedral I explain that when you started one in the Middle Ages or early Renaissance, if you were the architect or master mason who was designing it and involved from the foundations, you wouldn't see it completed in your own lifetime. Your children wouldn't. Your grandchildren probably would. One time when I said that, an architect came up to me afterwards and said, "It's exactly the opposite now. When you build a building, as the architect, you see it. Your children might. Your grandchildren certainly won't. It'll be long knocked down by then."

I think what struck me initially in the story of Brunelleschi building the dome was the wonderful, touching faith the people in Florence had in the fourteenth century. In 1367, they decided they wanted the largest span of any dome in the world. It was going to be larger than anything the Romans had done. The Italians had been living in the shade of the Romans for over a thousand years and felt inferior to them. This was the moment where they were going to step outside that shadow and build something not even the Romans could have done. The catch, of course, was that they themselves didn't know how to do it. They just said, "We have faith in God."

It's as if they believed they were the chosen people, and it would come to pass. Someone will rise from among us and show us the way. It turned out to be Brunelleschi, who didn't have an easy ride early on; his reputation was all the more Messianic because he was the one who fulfilled that prophecy from 1367 and showed them how to do it.

Dave: Do you plan to write more fiction?

King: At the moment, I'm doing a short biography of Niccolo Machiavelli for the Eminent Lives series, which is published by James Atlas Books and HarperCollins. If all goes well and I deliver on time, that should be published in the spring of 2007, a little over a year away.

I do have a contract for a novel, in the UK, at least. Occasionally they prompt me and say, "Are you ever going to write this?" I certainly am, but I have a number of ideas for more nonfiction, as well. In the summer, when I'm finished with the Machiavelli, I will sort of take my own council and decide which step to take.

Dave: What's most interesting to you about these subjects that people don't think to ask?

King: Maybe the thing that fascinated me most about the Sistine Chapel when I was doing the research, if we go to Michelangelo, was how close it came to destruction. We take for granted that it is a world masterpiece. Touch wood —it will always be with us. There was a very real possibility in 1512 that it would have been destroyed by the French if they had invaded Rome, as they almost did. They were within a day of two's march of the city. Fate intervened. The French never got to Rome, never got to unseat Julius II. There's no doubt in my mind that, if they had, they would have destroyed the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They would have seen it, quite rightly, as propaganda for Julius II.

Then, in 1527, the Imperial Army, led by the Duke of Bourbon, a Frenchman, the Constable of France, invaded Italy and ransacked much of the country, but the Sistine Chapel was saved once again by a fluke. The Duke of Bourbon was killed on the walls of Rome by a crossbow supposedly fired by Benvenuto Cellini, the goldsmith. Bourbon's body was taken into the Sistine Chapel to lie in state, and so his massacring, ravaging, scavenging hoards never got inside. It would have been defaced and destroyed, I have no doubt, if they'd got there.

The fragility of art—that's what I'm writing about in Ex-Libris, in a way: why things survive, and the many things that are lost to history. Had it not been for the grace of God and a little bit of luck, the Sistine Chapel could have been lost as well.

Ross King visited Powell's City of Books on February 6, 2006. Before his reading, we talked about book jacket art (in the UK, The Judgment of Paris is pink) and Canada—he grew up in Ontario and Saskatchewan; I went to college in Montreal. Soon enough, the subject turned to poutine, as it always does when discussing the Quebecois.

One last note: If you're heading to Paris sometime soon (need a traveling partner?), check out this walking tour of Impressionist Paris, based on King's Judgment.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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