The old maxim, that "the gods reward all things to labor," has had fit
illustration in Meissonier. His has been a life of constant, unvaried
toil. He came to Paris a poor, unknown boy, and has worked over fifty
years, till he stands a master in French art.
Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier was born at Lyons, in 1811. His early life
was passed in poverty so grinding that the great artist never speaks of
it, and in such obscurity that scarcely anything is known of his
boyhood. At nineteen he came to Paris to try his fate in one of the
great centres of the world. He, of course, found no open doors, nobody
standing ready to assist genius. Genius must ever open doors for itself.
The lad was a close observer, and had learned to draw accurately. He
could give every variety of costume, and express almost any emotion in
the face of his subject. But he was unknown. He might do good work, but
nobody wanted it. He used to paint by the side of Daubigny in the
Louvre, it is said, for one dollar a yard. Now his "Amateurs in
Painting," a chef-d'oeuvre of six inches in size, is bought by Leon
Say for six thousand dollars. Such is fame.
Time was so necessary in this struggle for bread, that he could sleep
only every other night; and for six months his finances were so low, it
is stated, that he existed on ten cents a week! No wonder that the
sorrows of those days are never mentioned.
His earliest work was painting the tops of bon-bon boxes, and fans. Once
he grew brave enough to take four little sepia drawings to an editor to
illustrate a fairy tale in a magazine for children. The editor said the
drawings were charming, but he could not afford to have them engraved,
and so "returned them with thanks."
His first illustrations in some unknown journal were scenes from the
life of "The Old Bachelor." In the first picture he is represented
making his toilet before the mirror, his wig spread out on the table; in
the second, dining with two friends; in the third, being abused by his
housekeeper; in the fourth, on his death-bed, surrounded by greedy
relations; and in the fifth, the servants ransacking the death-chamber
for the property.
For a universal history he drew figures of Isaiah, St. Paul, and
Charlemagne, besides almost numberless ornamental letters and headings
of chapters. Of course he longed for more remunerative work, for fame;
but he must plod on for months yet. He worked conscientiously, taking
the greatest pains with every detail.
His first picture, exhibited in 1833, when he was twenty-two, called
"The Visitors," an interior view of a house, with an old gentleman
receiving two visitors, all dressed in the costume of James I.,
admirable for its light and shade, was bought by the Society of the
Friends of Art, for twenty dollars. Two years later he made
illustrations for the Bible of the Sieur Raymond, of Holofernes invading
Judea, and Judith appearing before Holofernes. For "Paul and Virginia"
he made forty-three beautiful landscapes. "They contain evidence of long
and careful work in the hot-houses of the 'Jardin des Plantes,' and in
front of the old bric-a-brac dealer's stalls, which used to stand about
the entrance to the Louvre. And how admirably, with the help of these
slowly and scrupulously finished studies, he could reproduce, in an
ornamental letter or floral ornament, a lily broken by the storm, or a
sheaf of Indian arms and musical instruments."
In 1836, his "Chess Players," two men watching intently the moves of
chess, and "The Little Messenger," attracted a crowd of admirers. Each
sold for twenty dollars. He had now struggled for six years in Paris. It
was high time that his unremitting and patient work should find
approval. The people were amazed at so vast an amount of labor in so
small a space. They looked with their magnifying glasses, and found the
work exquisite in detail. They had been accustomed to great canvases,
glowing colors, and heroic or romantic sentiments; but here there was
When the people began to admire, critics began to criticize. They said
"Meissonier can depict homelike or ordinary scenes, but not historic."
He said nothing, but soon brought out "Diderot" among the philosophers,
Grimm, D'Alembert, Baron Holbach, and others in the seventeenth century.
Then they said he can draw interiors only, and "on a canvas not much
larger than his thumb-nail." He soon produced the "Portrait of the
Sergeant," "one of the most daring experiments in the painting of light,
in modern art. The man stands out there in the open by himself,
literally bathed in light, and he makes a perfect picture." Then they
were sure that he could not paint movement. He replied by painting
"Rixe," two ruffians who are striving to fight, but are withheld by
friends. This was given by Louis Napoleon to the Prince Consort.
Meissonier also showed that he could depict grand scenes, by "Moreau and
Dessoles on the eve of the battle of Hohenlinden," the "Retreat from
Russia," and the "Emperor at Solferino." Into these he put his
admiration for Napoleon the Great, and his adoration for his defeated
country. In the former picture, the two generals are standing on a
precipice, surveying the snow-covered battle-field with a glass; the
trees are bending under a strong wind, and the cloaks of the generals
are fluttering behind them. One feels the power of this picture.
In painting the "Retreat from Russia," the artist borrowed the identical
coat worn by Napoleon, and had it copied, crease for crease, and button
for button. "When I painted that picture," he said, "I executed a great
portion of it out of doors. It was midwinter, and the ground was covered
with snow. Sometimes I sat at my easel for five or six hours together,
endeavoring to seize the exact aspect of the winter atmosphere. My
servant placed a hot foot-stove under my feet, which he renewed from
time to time, but I used to get half-frozen and terribly tired."
He had a wooden horse made in imitation of the white charger of the
Emperor; and seating himself on this, he studied his own figure in a
mirror. His studies for this picture were almost numberless,--a horse's
head, an uplifted leg, cuirasses, helmets, models of horses in red wax,
etc. He also prepared a miniature landscape, strewn with white powder
resembling snow, with models of heavy wheels running through it, that he
might study the furrow made in that terrible march home from burning
Moscow. All this was work,--hard, patient, exacting work.
It had now become evident to the world, and to the critics as well, that
Meissonier was a master; that he was not confined to small canvases nor
In 1855 he received the grand medal; in 1856 he was made an officer of
the Legion of Honor; in 1861, a member of the Institute; and in 1867,
at the International Exhibition, he received the grand medal again. When
the prizes were given by the Emperor, the "Battle of Solferino" was
placed in the centre of the space cleared for the ceremony, with the
works of Reimers, the Russian painter, Knaus of Prussia, Rousseau, the
French landscape-painter, and others. This painting represents Napoleon
III. in front of his staff, looking upon the battle "as a cool player
studies a chess-board. On the right, in the foreground, some
artillery-men are manoeuvring their guns. The corpses of a French
soldier and two white Austrians, torn to rags by some explosion, show
where the battle had passed by."
Meissonier's paintings now brought enormous prices. His "Marshal Saxe
and his Staff" brought eight thousand six hundred dollars in New York;
the "Soldiers at Cards," in 1876, in the same city, eleven thousand five
hundred dollars; in 1867, his "Cavalry Charge" was sold to Mr. Probasco
of Cincinnati, for thirty thousand dollars; and the "Battle of
Friedland," upon which he is said to have worked fifteen years, to A. T.
Stewart, of New York, for sixty thousand dollars. Every figure in this
was drawn from life, and the horses moulded in wax. It represents
Napoleon on horseback, on a slight elevation, his marshals grouped
around him, holding aloft his cocked hat in salutation, as the soldiers
pass hurriedly before him.
Edmund About once wrote, "To cover M. Meissonier's pictures with gold
pieces simply would be to buy them for nothing; and the practice has now
been established of covering them with bank notes."
"The Blacksmith," shoeing a patient old cart-horse, perfect in anatomy;
"La Halte," some soldiers at an inn, now in Hertford House gallery; and
"La Barricade," a souvenir of the civil war, are among the favorite
pictures of this famous man. And yet as one looks at some of the
exquisite work about a convivial scene, the words of the great Boston
painter, William Hunt, come to mind. Being shown a picture, very fine in
technique, by a Munich artist, of a drunken man, holding a half-filled
glass of wine, he said, "It's skilfully done, but what is the use of
doing it! The subject isn't worthy of the painter."
Rarely does a woman appear in Meissonier's pictures. He has done nothing
to deprave morals, which is more than can be said of some French art.
His portrait of Madame Henri Thenard was greatly admired, while that of
Mrs. Mackay was not satisfactory, and was said to have been destroyed by
her. Few persons, however, can afford to destroy a Meissonier. When told
once that "he was a fortunate man, as he could possess as many
Meissoniers as he pleased," he replied, "No, no, I cannot; that would
ruin me. They are a great deal too dear."
He lives in the Boulevard Malesherbes, near the lovely Parc Monceau, in
the heart of the artists' quarter in Paris. His handsome home, designed
by himself in every detail, is in the Italian Renaissance style. He has
two studies,--one a quiet nook, where he can escape interruptions; and
one very large, where are gathered masterpieces from every part of the
world. Here is "a courtyard of the time of Louis XIII., brilliantly
crowded with figures in gala dress; a bride of the same period, stepping
into an elegant carriage of a crimson color, for which Meissonier had a
miniature model built by a coach-maker, to study from; a superb work of
Titian,--a figure of an Italian woman in a robe of green velvet, the
classic outline of her head shown against a crimson velvet curtain in
the background; a sketch of Bonaparte on horseback, at the head of his
picturesquely dressed staff, reviewing the young conscripts of the army
of Italy, who are cheering as he passes;" and many more valuable
pictures. Here, too, are bridles of black leather, with silver
ornaments, once the property of Murat.
One picture here, of especial interest, was painted at his summer home
at Poissy, when his house was crowded with German soldiers in the war of
1871. "To escape their company," says M. Claretie, "in the rage that he
experienced at the national defeat, he shut himself up in his studio,
and threw upon the canvas the most striking, the most vivid, the most
avenging of allegories: he painted Paris, enveloped in a veil of
mourning, defending herself against the enemy, with her soldiers and
her dying grouped round a tattered flag; sailors, officers, and
fusiliers, soldiers, national guards, suffering women, and dying
children; and, hovering in the air above them, with the Prussian eagle
by her side, was Famine, wan and haggard Famine, accomplishing the work
that the bombardment had failed to achieve."
His summer home, like the one in Paris, is fitted up luxuriously. He
designed most of the furniture and the silver service for his table.
Flowers, especially geraniums and tea roses, blossom in profusion about
the grounds, while great trees and fountains make it a restful and
inviting place. The walls of the dining-room are hung with crimson and
gold satin damask, against which are several of his own pictures. An
engraver at work, clad in a red dressing-gown, and seated in a room hung
with ancient tapestry, has the face of his son Charles, also an artist,
looking out from the frame. One of Madame Meissonier also adorns this
Near by are his well-filled stables, his favorite horse, Rivoli, being
often used for his model. He is equally fond of dogs, and has several
expensive hounds. How strange all this, compared with those early days
of pinching poverty! He is rarely seen in public, because he has
learned--what, alas! some people learn too late in life--that there is
no success without one commands his or her time. It must be frittered
away neither by calls nor parties; neither by idle talk nor useless
visits. Painting or writing for an hour a day never made greatness. Art
and literature will give no masterships except to devotees. The young
lady, sauntering down town to look at ribbons, never makes a George
Eliot. The young man, sauntering down town to look at the buyers of
ribbons, never makes a Meissonier. Nature is rigid in her laws. Her
gifts only grow to fruitage in the hands of workers.
Meissonier is now seventy-four, with long gray beard and hair, round,
full face, and bright hazel eyes. His friend, Claretie, says of him,
"This man, who lives in a palace, is as moderate as a soldier on the
march. This artist, whose canvases are valued by the half-million, is as
generous as a nabob. He will give to a charity sale a picture worth the
price of a house. Praised as he is by all, he has less conceit in his
nature than a wholesale painter."
* * * * *
January 31, 1891, at his home in Paris, the great artist passed away.
His illness was very brief. The funeral services took place at the
Church of the Madeleine, which was thronged with the leaders of art and
letters. An imposing military cortege accompanied the body to its last
resting-place at Poissy, the summer home of the artist, on the Seine,
ten miles from Versailles.