Monday, November 18, 2013

Meissonier by Menzel

the following Sotheby's catalog entry has been slightly edited for this post ~ अर्जुन

GERMAN, 1815-1905

signed, inscribed and dated Adolph Menzel Berl. 1869 l.r.
oil on panel
21 by 29cm., 81/4 by 111/2in.

This intimate snapshot of the painter Ernest Meissonier at work in his summer studio at Poissy, with Mme Meissonier and fellow painter Louis Ricard looking on, is at once a masterful evocation of the age and a symbol of the artistic fraternity that Paris fostered at the time.

Menzel spent the summer of 1867 in Paris with fellow artist and friend Paul Meyerheim and his sister-in-law Elise to attend the Universal Exhibition, at which he received the silver medal for his painting Night Attack at Hochkirch. The vibrant French capital was at its height as the crossroads of the art world, and among the many artists Menzel met there were Alfred Stevens, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Louis Ricard. As a melting pot of artistic creativity, and with its bustling streets crowded with visitors from around the world, Paris was the inspiration for some of Menzel's most ambitious paintings, including Afternoon in the Tuileries (which, like Meissonier In His Studio, was painted in Berlin from sketches, memory and possibly photographs).

Adolph von Menzel ~ Night Attack at Hochkirch (Frederick the Great at the Battle of Hochkirch) 1856

During the stay Menzel visited Meissonier (1815-91) several times at his house in Poissy. The two men had first met in Berlin in 1862, and over the years built up a close friendship. Knowingly or not, they had much in common: they were exactly the same age and diminutive in stature, and both shared a passion for history painting and a liking for small-format works. Their admiration for one another's work is testified by the present work, and Meissonier is known to have admired Menzel's Address at Leuthen for example.

Adolf Menzel ~ Frederick the Great's Address to his Generals before the Battle of Leuthen (1859-61)

By the time of Menzel's visit in 1867, Meissonier enjoyed enormous standing and wealth due to his historical genre and military pictures. Since 1846 he had owned a beautiful country house in Poissy, complete with a summer studio and stables to house the horses from which he made the animal studies for his paintings. Théophile Gautier wrote of the house that 'some of the rooms themselves are worthy of framing. They are as valuable as the master's paintings, of which they are copies.' (Agnès Dupasquier-Guignard, exh. cat., Lyon, 1993, p. 68). In a photograph from circa 1860-3, Meissonier can be seen leaning against the door of the summer studio, the same one as in the painting. The photo shows the same easel and one of the greyhounds given to him by Alexandre Dumas fils.

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (leaning against the door of the summer studio) c.1860

In the present oil, Meissonier is seen working on Les Ordonnances (Entrée de l'Abbaye de Poissy) 1869.

Meissonier ~ Les Ordonnances (Entrée De L'Abbaye De Poissy) - 1869

Standing in the background and perusing what may be Meissonier's sketchbook is Ricard (1823-73), a renowned portraitist in his own right whose sitters included George Sand, Eugène Fromentin, and Menzel himself. Meyerheim describes him as 'an epigone, an alchemist, an assayer', and as 'one of the nicest people, and a real virtuoso in the art of conversation'.

Menzel's painting is remarkably informal and unposed (a snapshot). He depicts the master utterly absorbed in his work, oblivious to his guests, his hair disheveled, his smock crumpled. The atmosphere is of intense artistic concentration, its essence made more palpable by the small format of the work. For all Menzel and Meissonier had in common, this compositional approach is also at the heart of what separates the two men artistically. For while Meissonier had a greater liking for detail and staged representative compositions (a standing self portrait, exhibited in 1867, depicts him as a dignified venetian gentleman wearing a red velvet overcoat), Menzel was forever experimenting and searching
for inventive forms of expression, like Gustave Courbet whom he had met personally and whose work he admired.

Here, the restless, painterly brushstroke throws the painter's absorption into even greater relief, a symbol of the act of painting which is the picture's subject. Menzel depicts the studio not as an idealized, orderly setting, but as it really was, a working environment with all Meissonier's props and tools of the trade strewn pell-mell around the room. In his choice of viewpoint too, Menzel evokes a hermetically sealed world, the studio taking up almost the whole picture plane with the outdoor brightness seemingly introduced by the elegantly dressed visitors, Mme Meissonier and Ricard.

Meissonier,  Jean-Louis-Ernest (1815-1891) ~ Portrait de l'artiste dans son atelier - 1875

In the background on the seat of the stool can be seen one of the sculpted studies of a horse which Meissonier modeled in the 1860s for his Napoleonic paintings. Menzel had in his possession until his death the small bronze elephant by Barye which Meissonier had given him. The little sculpture appears as a symbol in a drawing done in his old age, entitled End of the Party, depicting the empty studio in the Sigismundstrasse in Berlin. Taking on a life of its own, the animal tries to escape from the picture, overturning a stool as it does so, possibly foreshadowing the painter's death.

It is ironic that the fraternal harmony was shattered by the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war, which suddenly terminated the two men's friendship. Like many of his compatriots, Meissonier cut off all relations with Germany, declaring: 'No German has set foot in my house since the war, nor shall do […]. Menzel and all my other contacts had the honor of coming to my house. I have not seen them since 1871 and I will never see them again.' (M. O. Gréard, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Ses souvenirs - ses entretiens, Paris, 1897, pp. 307-8).

A related pencil drawing of the standing Ricard, presumably made by Menzel on the spot in Meissonier's studio and from which he worked up the figure in the finished painting, was sold at Villa Grisebach, Berlin, on 27 November 1999.

Portrait des Malers Louis Gustave Ricard by Adolf Menzel (30.5cm x 15.4cm)

We are grateful to Dr Ursula Riemann-Reyher for her assistance in cataloguing this work.