Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Brilliant Book and a Clever Title: "The Judgment of Paris" by Ross King

Ross King is a brilliant historian and a mesmerizing writer. I first became aware of his work when I read "Brunelleschi's Dome." His account of the building of the Duomo in Florence brought me back to my visit there, and the day I climbed to the top. "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" chronicles the intrigues that led to the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Once again, King's book reminded me of my visit to Rome and took me behind the scenes of how that iconic work of art came into being.

Blog Review of "The Pope's Ceiling"

I learned of "The Judgement of Paris" from my friend, Brenda Steinberg. She recently took an art history class at Harvard and this book was one of the resources. The subtitle of the book sets the scene for the book's focus: "The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism."

I must pause and say a word about the title of the book - "The Judgment of Paris." An engraving entitled "The Judgment of Paris," was executed in 1518 by Marcantonio Raimondi based on a sketch that had been done by Raphael. The engraving shows the young man Paris choosing which of three goddesses was the most beautiful- Juno, Minerva or Venus. The choice of Venus set in motion the events that led to the Trojan War. So, in this regard, the phrase, "The Judgment of Paris," refers to the man, Paris, making a subjective judgment about beauty. Used in another way, "The Judgment of Paris," refers, as well, to the topic of the book - to the city of Paris and its artistic community making subjective choices about which was more beautiful - the traditional painting style of the Salon or the new approach of the Impressionists. King connects these two topics by revealing that Edouard Manet was inspired to paint "Le Bain" when he was browsing in the Louvre's print room and found Raimondi's engraving!

King tells the story of the tumultuous decade - mid-1860's to mid-1870's - through the careers of two painters who came to represent the opposing poles of the Paris art world - Ernest Meissonier and Edouard Manet. Set against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War, the U.S. Civil War and the Paris Commune, the author paints a story of an art world in tumult and rapid evolution.

I have always been drawn to the Impressionists. Every visit I make to an art museum - the MFA, the Metropolitan, the Uffizi, the Prado, the National Gallery, the Louvre - finds me lingering in the Impressionist wing. So, I was not a neophyte when it comes to understanding the development of the Impressionist school. But King - by his thorough research and his vivid writing - added unexpected brush strokes to my understanding of the events that eventually gave the world the Impressionist masterpieces many of us have come to cherish.

If you love history, art or just plain expanding your mind, this is a book you will enjoy.


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