Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891) was one of the most internationally successful and celebrated artists of his time – but became almost completely forgotten in the 20th century. Not until now is the name of Meissonier starting to be re-introduced to its rightful place in art history, and this sketch "Head of a Soldier" is an example of why.
“–All of us will be forgotten, but Meissonier will be remembered" the painter Eugène Delacroix once said in a conversation with poet Charles Baudelaire. Back then, it was unthinkable to see Meissonier as anything else than one of the most famous and beloved artists alive. His paintings fetched the highest prices and audiences flocked to see his works on exhibitions. Through reproductions and prints the fame of Meissonier spread even wider, and when new major works were exhibited newspapers around Europe was quick to report. Napoleon III employed him as a member of the imperial court to paint military victories and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who also collected his works, said that Meissonier was “One of the greatest glories of the entire world”. John Ruskin, one of the most influential art critics of his day, was "marvelling at Meissonier's manual dexterity and eye for fascinating minutiae". So, what was it that captivated the 19th-century audience in the art of Meissonier?
Formally, Meissonier belonged to the academic tradition and is mainly known for his history paintings, motifs of Napoleonic battles and victories, genre pieces and some portraits. He was both a painter and a sculptor, and also an accomplished engraver. But beyond the motifs and techniques there were other, more intangible qualities to his art. Like no one else Meissonier could produce almost cinematic artworks filled with bombastic happenings, calm poetry or psychologically precise portraits; all balancing between an extraordinary sense of detail and striking compositions. He is often compared as an artistic parallel to writer Alexandre Dumas in his unique ability to convey stories of pre-Revolutionary France, with all its honourable chivalry and heroic tales.
Many of his motifs, especially the military scenes, were of great emotional value to the 19th-century audience and filled with symbols and references that have long lost their meaning. Meissonier knew how to set the scene and boil down to the perfect moment in a story where it reached its full dramatic potential. Whether he painted battle scenes or portraits, Meissoniers artworks had a curious ability to make the viewer submerged into the scene. Technically, what first seems like an extremely realistic and slightly formal way of painting is on a closer inspection shaped by fast, playful and almost carelessly performed strokes of paint that make the motifs vibrate of life. His tendency to only paint rather small formats also provided a kind of intimacy even to his more pompous sceneries.
The current sketch " Head of a Soldier" shows how Meissonier masterfully built up the composition with only a few brushstrokes. The man's gaze is determined and radiates self-confidence. A detail with extra fine finesse is the end of the brushstroke that is visible at the bottom right; the stroke goes back and forth almost in a circle until the paint runs out. This technique may look simple but is very difficult to master. Meissonier likely took inspiration for this sketch from Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (called Guercino), who made several similar sketches.
It is currently unknown what specific painting this sketch belong to, but as interest in Meissonier grows more research and comparisons can provide more knowledge in the future. Till then, this sketch remains a fascinating fragment of the working process behind one of the most successful yet forgotten artists of art history.
Title: Head of a Soldier oil on canvas signed with monogram EM canvas dimensions 25.3 x 19,8 cm frame 40,5 x 36 cm
Provenance: Drouot Paris, July 2021, Auction Art Rémy Le Fur & Associés, Lot 571.
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