BY DEMIE KIM
In around the year 1890, a group of French artists gathered for dinner at the house of a Parisian art dealer and pondered the following question: “Who, in 100 years, will be thought to have been the greatest painter of the second half of the 19th century?” As described in Lorenz Eitner’s An Outline of 19th Century European Painting, they came to an agreement on two names: William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier.
More than a century later, we know that this guess was way off the mark; the two academic classicists are far lesser-known than their Impressionist and Post-Impressionist counterparts. But the dinner party hypothesis was not unfounded at the time. In the late 19th century, Bouguereau and Meissonier were the superstars of the art world, then centered in Paris. As their fame spread around Europe and across the Atlantic, they sold their work for high prices and graced the collections of wealthy buyers around the world.
Where these artists are mentioned in art history books today, however, it’s often as lofty establishmentarians at odds with the radical inventions of the avant-garde, from Courbet and the Realists to Monet and his fellow plein-air Impressionists. Though artistic styles have gone in and out of vogue throughout history—a continuous ebb and flow—the extent to which 19th-century icons like Bouguereau and Meissonier quickly fell out of favor was particularly pronounced. Who were these artists and why did they go out of fashion?
The French Painting Tradition
If an artist’s success today is determined in large part by the market, in 19th-century France it was dictated by institutions—namely the Académie des Beaux-Arts, a body consisting of 40 elected life members, including 14 painters, 8 sculptors, 8 architects, 4 engravers, and 6 musical composers. Conservative and exclusive, the academy only accepted new candidates for membership upon the death of an incumbent.
Many members of the Academy ran private studios to train students hoping to be admitted to the prestigious École des Beaux Arts, the official art school. There, students followed a rigorous curriculum that emphasized drawing—first after prints and casts, then live models—and included the mastery of composition, perspective, and expression. As the fine arts section of the Institut de France, the national academic establishment, the Academy was also politically motivated, guiding the state on matters of policy, patronage, and purchasing related to art. Most significantly, they chose what hung on the walls of the Salon, the annual exhibitions reviewed by the Parisian journals and attended by the public.
It was this tradition that Bouguereau and Meissonier—and others like Paul Delaroche, Alexandre Cabanel, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema—grew out of, and like most successful painters at the time, it was the Salon audience that they had in mind when choosing their subjects. They painted for the middle class, who wanted their art, like literature and theater, to provide a moral lesson or an emotional experience.
Painting for a Salon Audience
Considered one of the best history painters of his day, Delaroche had a knack of condensing key events in English history—a subject that was then in vogue—into dramatic scenes, such as The Children of Edward (The Princes in the Tower) (1831) and Cromwell Contemplating the Corpse of Charles I (1831). Exhibited in 1834, his painting Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833) caused a sensation with its dramatic depiction of the blindfolded 16-year-old English queen at the threshold of death after only nine days on the throne. Delaroche is thought to have achieved wider fame in the mid-19th century than Ingres and Delacroix, who are both now glorified in the art-historical canon……..