Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Barricade (1871)

Ernest Meissonier: The Barricade, rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848

Ernest Meissonier has painted a Paris scene observed after a barricade was taken by the National Guard during the workers' riots in June 1848. Meissonier's painting is based on realistic observation. Known for his minutely detailed Ancien Régime genre scenes, the painter has here created his masterpiece.

The corpses of rioters, together with the cobblestones that form the remains of a barricade, lie like dummies who have lost their limbs in the center of a Paris street lined with old houses. Ernest Meissonier painted this picture after a watercolor done at the scene on June 25, 1848, during the workers' riots. These events made for a troubled beginning to the Second Republic, a few months after the February 1848 revolution. The painter, a captain in the National Guard who was sympathetic to the government, painted the scene that lay before him after a barricade had been taken near to the town hall. The painting is highly original in comparison with another depiction of a barricade, Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830) by Delacroix (1831, Musée du Louvre), celebrating the revolution of 1830. There is no pretension to allegory here, no pompous rhetoric. It is the most powerful image to emerge from the events of 1848.

The picture is extremely realistic, Meissonier having painted every part of the canvas, the cobblestones as well as the rioters, with the same attention to detail. Unlike historical paintings generally, the work seems to portray a scene observed without comment or message. Although it depicts a historical event, it is a work that is more akin to genre paintings, particularly on account of its small size. It has recently been interpreted by an art historian as a warning to future rebels. Indeed, the artist's impassive reaction to the horror in front of him may well express the hostility of his own social class, the bourgeoisie, toward the underprivileged. [The Louvre]

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