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 Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier  (1815 - 1891)

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Lived/Active: Italy/France      Known for: academic painting-aristocratic figure and war genre

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BIOGRAPHY for Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier
1815 (Lyon France)
1891 (Paris, France)


Self portrait -

Often Known For
academic painting-aristocratic figure and war genre

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

"The most famous and successful painter of the nineteenth century" (3), Jean Meissonier, born in Lyon, represented the conservatism of the French Academy, the force defied by Impressionists who led the new modernism.  At that time, which was the mid to late 19th Century, his paintings brought very high prices, and he spent lavishly on personal possessions including his home, furnishings and horses in the stables.  Three times, he was awarded the Grand Medal of Honor, which was unprecendented, and in 1889, he received the Grand Cross, which was the highest honor of the Legion Honor and which in recognizing him, was the first time this award was given to an artist.

His favorite painting subject was Emperor Napoleon, especially in victorious mode, which reinforced the popularity of that leader and the many romantic notions about his personae.  For Napoleon's image in the conquering scene, The Campaign of France, painted by Meissonier, the artist posed for Napoleon "because his own short, powerful physique perfectly matched the Emperor's." (5)  The artist did extensive research so that his paintings were accurate with details of battle, uniforms, geography, and lighting and shadows reflecting the actual time of day or night.  Often viewers of his work brought magnifying glasses to see more clearly the details he depicted.

William Vanderbilt of New York purchased Meissonier's Friedland, showing Napoleon's victory in 1807 over the Russian army, and placed it in his townhouse on Fifth Avenue in New York City.  Meissonier also served as juror for the annual French Salon, and was supportive of other artists, even the ones whose work defied his own.

He died in 1891 at age 76, never learning the fate of near oblivion of his reputation into the next decades when Modernism took over European and American art.

James F. Cooper, "The Judgment of Paris", American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2007, pp. 2-4

Biography from Schiller & Bodo:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

An artist who became one of the bright stars of the Parisian art world in the 1850s, Ernest Meissonier initially made his reputation with works of moderate size and intricate detail depicting elegant scenes of 17th and 18th century life.  Salon goers crowded around his small canvases each year to marvel at the minute detail, excellent execution and accuracy of his work.

By the 1860s, despite his established fame, Meissonier, a perfectionist par excellence who believed in the nobilizing role of fine art, decided to move away from genre subjects and to adopt "higher," more significant subject matter.  To this end, he began to focus his compositions on scenes of Napoleonic glory.  Executed with the same fine brushwork and acute attention to detail as his earlier subjects, these scenes from the great days of the French Empire eventually made Meissonier's works the highest-grossing, most sought-after paintings of any living artist.

The largest and most-ambitious of these works, 1807, Friedland, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sold for 380,000 francs, more than triple the highest price ever paid for a painting by a living artist.  While Friedland was a large-scale composition which took that artist fourteen years to complete, the majority of Meissonier's grand battle scenes were painted on a relatively small scale and are remarkable for their minute finish and historically accurate depictions.

Selected Collections:
Baltimore, Walters Art Museum; Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts; Chantilly, Musée Condé; Chicago, Art Institute; Cleveland, Museum of Art; Compiègne, Musée national du château; Dallas, Museum of Art; Dijon, Musée Magnin; Grenoble, Musée de Grenoble; Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts; London, National Gallery, Wallace Collection; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts; Manchester, NH, Currier Museum of Art; Manchester, UK, City Art Gallery; New York, Metropolitan Museum; Omaha, NE, Joslyn Art Museum; Oxford, Ashmolean Museum; Paris, Musée du Louvre, Musée d'Orsay; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts; Saint Petersburg, Hermitage Museum; San Francisco, Fine Arts Museums; Versailles, Musée national du château; Washington DC, National Gallery of Art;

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