Thursday, February 14, 2008

What I'm Reading Right Now

I have been reading Ross King's The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade The Gave The World Impressionism. King focuses on three personalities (Messonier, Manet, and the Emperor Louis-Napoleon) in constructing the story of a cultural shift that we take for granted. Messonier was an artist, an entirely successful artist of his time, who focused on precision and exact realism in his work. Manet was not yet well known or even particularly well-regarded for the most part. In 1863, his most important contributions were still before him.The emperor wielded power without any particular competence but did seem to understand the powerful relationship in French society between politics and culture when applied to art. Each represents a particular worldview; the jostling of the three for position and the reaction of the wider public to the works on view drove a change in the nineteenth century that fostered modern art. None of this is news, I am sure, but it provides material for interesting reflection.

King writes of the larger landscape of artistic thought as well as the ordinary anecdotes of life that illustrate the individual characters of the various players. There was a common expectation that works of art would depict morally uplifting tales of history or classical literature rather than the ordinary life of peasants or urban dwellers. Manet and a coterie of others turned to their own time period for new subjects. King captures the excitement and energy of change through the historical events of the day that influenced the artistic works as well as the economic importance of the juried salons to the artists themselves.

I'm only about a third through the text. Some artists' names such as Ingres, Whistler, and Courbet are familiar to me. Others such as Cabanel and Fantin-Latour are less well-known. My chief problem, I believe, is that I need more uninterrupted blocks of time to make progress through this. I don't gain much from non-fiction in mere 20 minute intervals.