Ross King, author of the pop-histories "Brunelleschi's Dome" and "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling," writes another great story that combines artistic and political intrigue. This is a tale of the 1860s in France, when Edouard Manet and the not-yet-named Impressionists challenged the artistic establishment while Napolean III's "Second Empire" teetered on the brink of disaster.
Most interesting is King's ability to tease out the relations between the political and artistic world, which were admittedly closer in Second Empire France than in just about any period in history. A section of Napoleon's Ministry of State known as the Ministry of the Imperial House and Fine Arts, based at the Louvre, controlled artistic exhibitions in Paris, most importantly the annual Salon, where artists displayed and sold their work. In the 1860s the arch-conservative Minister of Fine Arts, Comte de Nieuwerkerke, set the annual regulations which determined who was elected to the Salon's jury, and therefore what type of paintings were exhibited (and where they got exhibited: Manet's revolutionary Olympia was moved from eye-level to high above visitors heads at the 1865 Salon. One critic said "you scarcely knew whether you were looking at a parcel of nude flesh or a bundle of laundry."). The Comte's strict, conservative regulations for the 1863 Salon led to such an outcry that Napoleon, in order to gain artistic support, sponsored a "Salon de Refuses" where the rejects could be judged by the people as a whole. The 1866 Salon was known for its "Jury of Assassins," after one artist committed suicide when his art was refused entry. In order to gain more liberal support along with his liberalization of the censorship laws, Napolean in 1868 opened the "Salon of Newcomers," where previously rejected artists like Pisarro, Renoir, and Degas exhibited. King shows that art functioned as an important art of the state in this period.
King also shows that this political concern about art was not idle or elitist. The Salon attracted as many as a million visitors in some years, sometimes up to 50,000 a day when it was free on Sundays, and they were truly visitors of all classes (he compares this to the most popular exhibition of 2003, Leonardo: Master Draftsman, at the Met, which drew 400,000 attendees, or around 6,800 visitors a day, not even a fraction of the attendance at the old Paris Salons). Painting and sculpture were real popular and political entertainments.
He also relates some great anecdotes, such as the confusion among Manet's friends when Monet began to exhibit at the Salon (they complimented the angry Manet on his new landscapes: generations of art students, you have company). He also shows that it was the Americans who first showed the full appreciation for the Impressionists (Louisine Havemeyer, wife of the sugar-magnate, spent more than anyone else buying up Monet, Pissarro, and Cezanne works in the 1890s).
Of course there are a few problems. King spends too much time comparing Manet and the now forgotten painter Meissonier, who was called the greatest artist of his age but who today is so ignored that he even had his statute removed from the Louvre by a recent French Minister of Culture. Although it is interesting to know about this oft-ignored representative of the "conservative" establishment, it's hard to get excited about the details of his family life. Also, the endless annual salons tend to blur into one another at some points in the story, a little more discretion here would have been nice. But overall this book gave me a real appreciation for the world that birthed modern art, and its importance in its time.