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Ernest Messonier

Born: Lyon, 21 February 1815
Died: Paris, 31 January 1891
Nationality: French

with Jules Potier; largely self-taught


1840s-80s –small canvases eagerly collected by social elite (Rothschild and Pereire families, William Vanderbillt and William T. Walters)

1861 – elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts

1862 – begins sculpting

1872 – leads Salon jury that excluded Gustave Courbet for his political activities

1876 – President of Académie des Beaux-Arts

1889 – President of Exposition universelle jury; first artist to receive the Grand Cross in the Legion of Honor

1890 – founds Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts with Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Commissions from: 

Napoleon III

Important Artworks: 

1814, the Campaign of France [defeated Napoleon leading troops home], 1864 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Self-Portrait, 1889 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)



Meissonier was one of  the most famous and respected artists in his lifetime:

“If any living painter merits the name of the king of French Art, it is assuredly MEISSONIER….One of the greatest of French art-critics, Théophile Gautier, speaks thus of the talent of Meissonier: ‘He possesses the serious qualities of the true painter – drawing, color, the fineness of touch, and the perfection of rendition. All things acquire a value beneath his brush, and become animated with that mysterious Art-life that belongs to a violoncello, a bottle, or a chair, as well as to the human countenance. How well he knows how to choose the desk, the ottoman, the sheet of music, the book, the table, the easel, or the box, according to the figure he represents! What a harmony between the accessories and the personage, and what a penetrating impression of the scene or the epoch is obtained without effort! Into a style where too often the artist is contented with precision and patience of execution, he has brought severity in drawing, strength of color, and the profound truthfulness of a master. The only defects wherewith he can be reproached are found in his taking generally points of perspective that are too near, and in his not throwing a sufficiency of atmosphere around his personages.’…

He is one of the most conscientious of workers, refusing to part with an unfinished sketch or drawing at any price…It is said that the garrets of his house at Poissy contain a literal fortune in the shape of studies, sketches, unfinished works, etc, put aside in portfolios and cases as hints for future masterpieces, but probably destined to swell the splendid catalogue of the great Art-sale that will agitate the world of picture-buyers to its very center after Meissonier’s decease.”

Lucy H. Hooper, “Contemporary French Artists. Meissonier and Cabanel,” The Art Journal (1875-1887), vol. 5 (1879): 285-6.