From 1863 to 1874, Room M, the infamous gallery in the annual, government-sponsored Paris Salon (the Exhibition of Living Artists ), was a testing ground. It saw many a melee, showcasing (alphabetically) the dramatically opposed works of celebrated conservative painter Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and reviled upstart Edouard Manet, father of the Impressionists. This juxtaposition of Meissonier's realistically rendered historical scenes ( Campaign of France ) and Manet's technically unorthodox, wittily subversive subjects ( Le Bain, Olympia ) represents the conceit a pivotal clash of ideas, commingled with the inevitable vicissitudes of human striving upon which Ross King's The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Era That Gave the World Impressionism is based.

As in King's previous books (Brunelleschi's Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling) a curtain is lifted, exposing the lives and careers of formidable artists. Against a 19th-century decade of global war, civil unrest and oppressive politics, he weaves a rich tapestry of storytelling and history, a strategically paced, detail-packed narrative that follows the fortunes of Meissonier and Manet, the City of Light and the world's nations. The turbulent chronicles of Napoleon III's Second Empire unfold as, in both the Salons proper and their illegitimate offspring, the Salons des Refuses, the artistic and public communities staged parallel battles of mores and tastes.

The Judgment of Paris is a marvelous biography (you'll also meet Monet, Baudelaire and Zola), an art and military history and a study in the evolution of man's cultural ideals. It underscores a rueful irony: man struggles for freedom of expression in the present, which is mined, always, from the past. Though Meissonier's sought-after paintings of a bygone age, speaking a language of gentle nostalgia, were eventually deemed irrelevant, Manet's shocking works, relevant depictions of modern life, now resonate with nostalgic vernacular. Says King, The painters of modern life created, in the end, the same consoling visions of the past.

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