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Among the many beautiful paintings collected in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, there is one that always attracts a crowd, on the free-days and holidays when the general public finds admission. This is the picture called simply, "Friedland: 1807," and representing the soldiers of Napoleon saluting the emperor at the battle of Friedland. It was painted by Jean Louis Meissonier for the late A. T. Stewart, of New York, who paid for it what seemed a very large sum, $60,000; but when Mr. Stewart died, and his pictures were sold at auction, this painting brought the still larger sum of $66,000, showing that a great many people admired the work, and were willing to pay a good price for it. The picture was bought by Judge Hilton, of New York, and was presented by him to the Metropolitan Museum as a memorial of the long friendship that had existed between himself and Mr. Stewart. No doubt the facts of the high price paid for the picture, and that a gift of such value should be made to the Museum, have caused a great many people to look at the painting with more interest than they would, had the circumstances been less uncommon. But a great many more people find this picture interesting for its own sake; they are moved rather by the spirited way in which it tells its story, and find their curiosity excited by the studious accuracy shown by the artist in the painting of every detail.
Of course, Meissonier did not come all at once to fame and prosperity. The rewards he gained were such as are earned only by hard and constant labor. When he came to Paris about the year 1832, from Lyons, where he was born, he was about nineteen years old. His parents were in humble circumstances, and would seem to have been able to do nothing to advance the lad, who arrived in Paris with little money in his pocket, and with no friends at hand. He had, however, the materials out of which friends and money are made: health, a generous spirit, energy, and a clear purpose, and with these he went to work. We do not hear much about his early life in Paris. When he first appears in sight, he is working in the same studio with Daubigny, the landscape-painter, the two painting pictures for a dollar the square yard, religious pictures probably, and probably also copies, to be sent into the country and hung up in the parish churches. Although this may have seemed like hardship at the time, yet there is no doubt it was good practice, for among artists we are told it is an accepted doctrine that in order to paint on a small scale really well, you must be able to paint on a larger. And it is said that Meissonier was in the habit all his life of making life-size studies in order to keep his style from falling into pettiness. So, after all, the painting of these big pictures may have been a useful ordeal for the artist who for the next sixty years was to reap fame by painting small ones.
While he was earning a scanty living by this hack-work, Meissonier found time to paint two pictures which he sent to the Salon of 1836. One of these attracted the attention of a clever artist, Tony Johannot, who introduced him to Leon Cogniet, with whom he studied for a time, but from whom he learned but little. The mechanism of his art he had pretty well mastered already, as was shown by the Salon accepting his early pictures, and the chief advantage he gained from his stay in Cogniet's studio was a wider acquaintance with the world of artists; for Cogniet was a favorite teacher, and had a great many pupils, not a few of whom became distinguished painters. But his style of painting was not one to attract Meissonier, who was ambitious to paint like the old Dutch artists, Terburg, Metzu, Mieris, and others, who have the charm that their pictures are finished with the most exquisite minuteness, and yet treated in such a large way that, after awhile, we forget the microscopic wonder of the performance and think only of the skill the artist has shown in painting character. Meissonier was the first artist to bring back into favor the Dutch school of painting of the seventeenth century. Louis XIV., who set the fashion in everything in his day, had set the fashion of despising the Dutch painters, and the French people had never unlearned the lesson. It was Meissonier who brought back the taste, and taught the public to admire these small panels where interest in the subject is for the most part lost in the exquisite beauty of the painting and where the Dutch painters of similar subjects are successfully met on their own ground and equalled in every respect except in the charm of color.
There is an old saying: "Imitation is the sincerest mode of flattery;" and Meissonier's immediate success with the public was the signal for a bevy of imitators to try to win a like success by like methods. Some of these artists were very clever, but an imitator is but an imitator after all, and is more apt to call attention to his model than to himself. It must be admitted that Meissonier himself has suffered somewhat in the same way: the evident fact that his methods of painting were inspired by the study of the Dutch masters has led to his being called an imitator, and his pictures are often compared, and not to their advantage, with those of his models. Meissonier is, however, very much more than an imitator; he was inspired by the Dutch painters, but he soon found a way of his own, and he has put so much of himself into his work, that the charge of imitation long since ceased to be brought against him.
While he was still not much known to the public, the Duke of Orleans bought of him, for six hundred francs, a picture that to-day is worth thirty thousand francs. As is usual in such affairs, the purchase was made, not by the duke in person, but by an agent: in this case, it was his secretary, M. Adaline, who bought the picture from Meissonier, who as an acknowledgment of the service gave the secretary a water-color drawing which, to-day, like everything coming from the hand of Meissonier, would bring the owner a good round sum if offered for sale.
In 1865, Meissonier's son Charles, himself a very good painter, went to a costume-ball dressed like a Fleming of the seventeenth century and looking as if he had stepped out of a picture by Terburg. The costume had been made with the greatest accuracy, and Meissonier was so pleased with his son's appearance that he made a study and sold it for two thousand francs. Twenty years after, in 1884, hearing that it was to be sold at auction, and desiring, out of affection for his son, to have the study back again, he asked his friend, M. Petit, to buy it for him, at whatever cost. A rich Parisian, M. Secretan, who had a collection of pictures since become famous--it was to him that Millet's "L'Angelus" belonged--and who had such an admiration for Meissonier and his work that he had paid no less than four hundred thousand francs for his picture "Les Cuirassiers," hearing from M. Petit of Meissonier's desire for the portrait of his son, bought the picture for twenty-five thousand francs and presented it to the artist. These stories are told only as illustrations of the growth of Meissonier's reputation and of the increased number of people who desire to have an example of his work. The rise in value of a small sketch of a single figure, from $500 to $5,000, in fifteen years, is no greater in proportion than has happened in the case of every one of Meissonier's pictures, drawings, studies, and even his slight sketches, on some of which originally he would have placed no value at all. Yet everything he left behind him, even unconsidered trifles, are found to be of value, and the sale of the contents of his studio just ended in Paris brought nearly five hundred thousand francs, although the collection contained not a single finished picture of importance, but was made up almost entirely of unfinished studies and of sketches.
Meissonier's industry was constant and untiring. It is told of him that he rarely had the pencil or the brush out of his hand when in the house, and that when he called at a friend's house and was kept waiting he used the spare minutes in sketching upon the first piece of paper that he found at hand. One of his friends, who knew of this habit, collected in the course of many visits he received from the artist enough of these scraps to fill a small album; while it is told of another of his friends that he instructed his servant to put beside Meissonier's coffee-cup after dinner a number of bits of paper of the size of cigarette-papers but of better quality on which Meissonier in his absent way would fall to drawing as he chatted with his companions. After dinner these jottings remained as a valuable memorial of his visit. Perhaps if they were all collected, these slight affairs might bring enough at auction to pay for all the dinners to which the prudent host had invited the artist.
The world of subjects included in Meissonier's art was a very narrow one, and was not calculated to interest men and women in general. The nearest that he came to striking the popular note was in his Napoleon subjects, and beside the excellence of the painting, these pictures really make a valuable series of historical documents by reason of their accuracy. But the greater number of the pictures which he left behind him are chiefly interesting from the beautiful way in which they are painted: we accept the subject for the sake of the art. The world rewarded him for all this patient labor, this exquisite workmanship, by an immense fortune that enabled him to live in splendor, and to be generous without stint. From the humble lodgings of his youth in the Rue des Ecouffes, he passed, in time, to the palace in the Place Malsherbes where he spent the latter half of his long life in luxurious surroundings: pictures and statues, rich furniture, tapestries and armor and curiosities of art from every land. But the visitor, after passing through all this splendor, came upon the artist in a studio, ample and well lighted indeed, but furnished only for work, where, to the end of his life, he pursued his industrious calling with all the energy and ardor of youth. He died in 1891, and was buried by the government with all the honors that befitted one of her most illustrious citizens.
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