Meissonier is best known today as a painter, as he was during his lifetime, when he enjoyed international success and every mark of professional recognition in France. He moved at an early age from Lyons, where he was born in 1815, to Paris, where his father's success in business provided the artist with material ease for the rest of his life. After a brief apprenticeship in the pharmaceutical business, undertaken to please his father, he opted for a career in the arts--with his father's active support. Meissonier began his formal studies with an obscure drawing master at a women's academy, Jules Potier (dates unknown), who took him to Cogniet's studio, where he worked for about four months and saw the master only twice. Meissonier learned engraving and aquatint at this time as well. By the mid-1830s, he earned a good livelihood as a book illustrator with Tony Johannot. Simultaneously, influenced by seventeenth-century Northern genre and contemporary historical genre painting, he began painting small-scale scenes of typical life set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He made his Salon debut with the latter in 1834, notably a painting called Flemish Burghers (now entitled Dutch Burghers, Wallace Collection, London), that was purchased from the exhibition by a progressive industrialist and collector named Jacques Paturle. Showing regularly in the July Monarchy Salons, he quickly became known for his masterful draftsmanship and scrupulous attention to detail and authenticity, amassing his own "work library" of accessories at the local costume markets.
Meissonier determined to become the modern van der Meulen (Adam Frans van der Meulen, the prestigious military painter to Louis XIV), and shifted from historical genre to images of modern warfare and military life as both "high" history painting and genre. His passion for military affairs culminated, in 1859, in an imperial commission for an illustrated book on the current Solferino campaign, with a text by Edmond Texier of Le Siècle. His representation of contemporary military subjects expanded to include earlier Napoleonic subjects. Meissonier's career prospered despite the fall of his imperial patron in 1870. A staunch nationalist who fought in the Franco-Prussian War and was deeply upset by his country's defeat, he pursued the Napoleonic imagery in part to remind his compatriots of France's proven military glory. Such works were nonetheless in great demand abroad as well. By the time of his death in 1891, Meissonier's paintings and prints could be found throughout Europe and the United States. He was also a recognized power in the art world. He had served on Salon and Universal Exposition juries, been elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1861, served as president of the Institut de France and later of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and received an elaborate academicians' funeral at the Madeleine in Paris. Meissonier's extravagant spending, particularly on the house he built in Paris, however, left his heirs heavily in debt.
By contrast with his painting and printmaking, the artist's sculptural activity was unfamiliar to most connoisseurs during his lifetime. It was also apparently secondary, private, and mostly small in scale. Little is known about his formal training in the medium. Meissonier claims that in the 1830s he and Johannot had a "mania for modeling each other's heads"--a plaster life mask of Meissonier dated 1834 survives today in a private collection--and he reportedly executed a portrait head of their employer, publisher Henri-Léon Curmer. His documented oeuvre is otherwise limited to around twenty waxes or works in plastic clay (pâte plastique grise), none of which is known to have been shown or sold during his lifetime. Aside from the figural caryatids for his studio fireplace in the Paris house (and related studies), the waxes appear to have been produced largely as research tools for his two-dimensional work--or as subsequent spin-offs. It helped his approach to painting, which he described as that of "a sculptor, always seeking the relief," the internal topography rather than the contours. He claimed to enjoy modeling for its special quality as "direct creation." The chronology of his sculptural activity is unclear. Many scholars feel it is largely restricted to the Third Republic--from the 1870s to his death. However, Philippe Burty remembered that, upon a visit to Meissonier's vast country studio in 1862, it was "jammed with all sorts of sketches, with studies of horses modeled in clay." Photographs from the late 1860s, showing him beside a modeling stand with one such figure, confirm his work in that medium in the 1860s. Thiébaut-Sisson claims, however, that his and Daumier's sculptor friend Victor Geoffrey-Dechaume, directed Meissonier's work on some small study figures (poupettes) for a painting in 1848, Lawn-Bowling Match (present location unknown). Though not visible publicly until after the artist's death, the three-dimensional works did shape his artistic reputation abroad during his lifetime. By 1879 American art journals reported he modeled small harnessed horses in wax as part of his extraordinary pursuit of authenticity. There has been some speculation that Meissonier supervised a serial edition in bronze of some of the waxes. The documentary evidence suggests instead that most known casts were produced posthumously by his heirs, perhaps to pay off the artist's debts.
Best known today for horses and equestrian groups, Meissonier's sculpture constitutes an important example of nineteenth-century French historical genre based upon scrupulous research, whether concerning issues of anatomy or of accessory. His pursuit of empirical truth was nonetheless allied with subtle aesthetic judgment and a lively narrative sense, giving these works their delicate animation, immediacy, and artistic strength. [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Burty, Philippe. "Meissonier." La Revue illustrée 6th yr., 125 (15 February 1891): 165-178.
Gréard, Vallery C.O. Meissonier. His Life and His Art. New York, 1897. French edition: Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier. Ses souvenirs. Ses entretiens précédés d'une étude sur sa vie et son oeuvre. Paris, 1897.
Lami, Stanislas. Dictionnaire des sculpteurs de l'école française au dix-neuvième siècle. 4 vols. Paris, 1914-1921: 3:422-423.
Scherf, Guilhem. "Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier." In Jean-René Gaborit and Jack Ligot, eds. Sculptures en cire de l'ancienne Egypte à l'art abstrait. Notes et Documents des Musées de France. Paris, 1987.
Durey, Philippe, and Constance Cain Hungerford, assisted by Dominique Brachlianoff and Antoinette Le Normand-Romain. Ernest Meissonier. Exh. cat. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, 1993.
Butler, Ruth, and Suzanne Glover Lindsay, with Alison Luchs, Douglas Lewis, Cynthia J. Mills, and Jeffrey Weidman. European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 286-287.