When Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier was born at Lyons in 1815, under the fading light of an Imperial sunset, these were scarcely the ideas that predominated in the national school of French art. Pictorial art, to confine ourselves to that, had, both before and during the First Empire, achieved at most a lumbering and trammelled flight; and the influence of antiquity, so perceptible in the language as well as in the manners and fashions at the close of the Eighteenth Century, served only to confine the inspiration of artists more strictly within the bounds of classic tradition. Roman characters, Roman costumes, Roman virtues,—such was the ideal to which each debutant who did not revolt openly must make surrender! To be sure, the commanding figure of David gave a magnificent prestige to this rather cold and dishearteningly classic programme. But, like all great artists, David was exceptional; and he stands today as the only one who, in an epoch sadly poor in genius, produced a host of living masterpieces, to swell the lists of a school so artificial that it would now be forgotten, save as an echo of his name. It is true that, by way of ransom, he spent much time in painting vast canvases that today hold but a small place in his life work.
On the threshold of the Nineteenth Century, in 1799, Eugène Delacroix was born. It was he who brought a new spirit into French painting and, single-handed, wrought a great revolution.
Such is not destined to be the rôle of Meissonier! His was neither so tragic a struggle, nor so immense a triumph. Unlike Delacroix, he did not restore the Beautiful nor hand down new forms to glory. He succeeded none the less in inscribing his name in modest yet precise characters—that will long remain legible—upon the marble of the temple.
How did the artist get his start? According to the monotonous and mournful formula, “after a hard struggle.” The lives of all beloved and admired artists have this in common with fairy tales: they always begin badly and end happily (unluckily, they sometimes end a long time after the death of the principal hero!).
The father of Meissonier was a dealer in colonial products and chemicals, and kept a drug and provision shop in the Rue des Ecouffes. Beneath the low ceiling of this shop and between walls lined with drawers, bearing strange labels, the childhood of Jean-Louis-Ernest was passed. His mother was a fragile woman. We are told further that she was sensitive to music and that she had learned to paint on porcelain and to make miniatures.
Are we at liberty to attribute to the tender and brief contact of that mother, who died so young, with the life of her child, the origin of his artistic vocation? It is pleasant at least to fancy so and to try to believe it, even though we are told that parents bequeath to their children, not a vocation—a mysterious gift, of unknown origin—but rather a certain number of necessary aptitudes and qualities, which will enable them to profit by the gift, if perchance it falls to them from Heaven.
Yet the fact remains that in the depths of a cupboard, in the house on the Rue des Ecouffes, there lay the paint-box which Mme. Meissonier once used, while taking miniature lessons from the authoritative hands of Mme. Jacottot. As joyously as other children would have appropriated a jar of jam, the boy possessed himself of the magic box, and on that selfsame day entered, with stumbling fingers, upon the laborious mission which was destined to cease only with his life.
He was not a very good student. A report has been preserved of his standing in a school in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, at Paris, where his later childhood was passed. In this document the proper authorities alleged that the pupil, Ernest Meissonier, showed “too marked a tendency to draw sketches in his copy-books, instead of paying attention to his teachers.”
The said tendency did not fail to awaken anxiety in M. Meissonier, the father. It should be remembered that, for some years previous, the question of painting in France had been taking on a rather bitter tone. The romantic school was entering boldly into the lists, and among its champions were some who distinguished themselves less by their works than by their long beards and the public challenge they flung at their traditional enemy, the phalanx of David’s pupils. And among the latter, it must be owned, the majority made no answer beyond a disdainful silence and some mediocre paintings,—with just one single exception: the admirable, undoubted, impeccable exception of the great Jean-Dominique Ingres.
The press, the art clubs, not to mention the salons, were all more or less divided between the romantics and the classicists, the innovators and the traditionalists, and fanned the flames of a quarrel which, in view of the worth of the two leaders—one of whom spelled genius and the other perfection—was destined to appear without sanction to the eyes of posterity.
But, as may be imagined, these tumultuous polemics were not calculated to reassure a thoroughly pacific bourgeois, already much alarmed to find that he had begotten an artist. And just at this crisis another damnatory report exploded, this time from a master of the eighth form in a school on the Rue de Jouy: “Ernest has a decided talent for drawing. The mere sight of a picture often takes our attention from our serious duties.” This diagnosis, so categoric underneath its familiar form and somewhat faulty grammar, sounded a serious cry of alarm. It was promptly heeded by the father, and young Ernest was forthwith entered as a druggist’s apprentice, in a house on the Rue des Lombards.