Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier - The Barricade, Rue de la Mortellerie

The barricade, Rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848 known as Souvenir of the civil war
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Enrolled as a captain in the Artillerie de la Garde nationale, Meissonier viewed at close quarters the days of 1848 during which the troops of General Cavaignac annihilated the Parisians in revolt. This small picture is almost a piece of reportage; the implacable realism of a daguerreotype. "This is the horror of the truth", was Delacroix's comment.
The many disappointments resulting from the revolution of 1848 and the Second Republic opened to the door to Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, enabling him to play a role on the French political stage. And he managed to rally to his cause not only the bourgoisie worried by the revolutionary disorders, and the peasants hostile to the Republic, but also a part of the working classes which believed in his social programme. On 10 December, 1848, Louis-Napoleon was elected President of the Republic. However, Meissonier's barricade is the prefiguring of future brutal repression, namely that which followed the coup d'etat of 2 December, 1851, staining right at the outset the future Imperial regime.

This is the original watercolour which was the basis for the painting...

After the taking of a barricade

The corpses of rioters, together with the cobblestones that form the remains of a barricade, lie like dummies who have lost their limbs in the center of a Paris street lined with old houses. Ernest Meissonier painted this picture after a watercolor (Musée du Louvre) done at the scene on June 25, 1848, during the workers' riots. These events made for a troubled beginning to the Second Republic, a few months after the February 1848 revolution. The painter, a captain in the National Guard who was sympathetic to the government, painted the scene that lay before him after a barricade had been taken near to the town hall. The painting is highly original in comparison with another depiction of a barricade, Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830) by Delacroix (1831, Musée du Louvre), celebrating the revolution of 1830. There is no pretension to allegory here, no pompous rhetoric. It is the most powerful image to emerge from the events of 1848.

A masterpiece by the "giant among dwarves"

Meissonier wanted to exhibit this canvas at the 1849 Salon under the title of June, but he abandoned the idea because the events were too recent. He exhibited it instead under the title Memory of Civil War at the 1850-51 Salon, but the critics were put out by the painting's unpleasant subject matter. Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) was the only one who dared to admit being disturbed by it and talked of "this trusty truth that no-one wants to tell." Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) had been struck by the watercolor done at the scene, upon which the painting was based. This painting is unquestionably Meissonier's masterpiece. Most of his works depict scenes of daily life under the Ancien Régime and are painted in small format. Combined with his small stature, they earned him the nickname of "the giant among dwarves" that was coined by Edgar Degas (1838-1917). Another of Meissonier's pictures to achieve fame was called The French Campaign, 1814 (1864, Musée d'Orsay, Paris), and became the most expensive work sold in the nineteenth century.

A scene observed

The picture is extremely realistic, Meissonier having painted every part of the canvas, the cobblestones as well as the rioters, with the same attention to detail. Unlike historical paintings generally, the work seems to portray a scene observed without comment or message. Although it depicts a historical event, it is a work that is more akin to genre paintings, particularly on account of its small size. It has recently been interpreted by an art historian as a warning to future rebels. Indeed, the artist's impassive reaction to the horror in front of him may well express the hostility of his own social class, the bourgeoisie, toward the underprivileged.

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