The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 2, 2009


A few weeks ago, I wandered into the Wallace Collection near Oxford Street, and was pleased to find that there was to be a brief presentation which I would have time to attend. Mr Stephen Duffy, one of the curators of this jewel of art collections, would talk about Meissonier's Polichinelle, better known in England as Punch (of Punch and Judy fame).

On 9 May 1662, Samuel Pepys recorded what is possibly the first mention of the old puppet show. He wrote, "Thence to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and great resort of gallants." Italian? Well, Punch was the Anglicised version of a stock character in the Italian Commedia dell'Arte, which was about a century old by then, an improvisational tale of jocosity, cruelty, heartbreak, love and other emotions. Punch in the original Italian was a pointy nosed fellow wearing a white dress and black mask; in France, he was a pot-bellied, sly, lascivious chap, cruel even. Meissonier depicted him in vivid colour, as seen here, with a prominent tummy and self-indulgent smirk.

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-91) began his career as a self-trained painter, an illustrator at first, but he quickly gained the favour of the intellectual and the super-wealthy salons of 19th century France. Among his patrons was Lord Hertford, the original Wallace, whose collection forms the bulk of the museum today. Hertford had to fight off the likes of James de Rothschild and the Duc de Monay to obtain an elegant set of fourteen pieces of Meissonier's work, some of which are on display at the Wallace Collection.

This particular piece is special - it was executed on a panel in oil around 1860 - and the panel itself was on a door in the apartment of a famous courtesan, Madame Sabatier, whose (intellectual) favours were enjoyed by the likes of Baudelaire and Flaubert and Meissonier (and Hertford as well, reputed to be her lover in the 1840s). Even now, the knots on the wood are evident. The panel was cut out of the door and refurbished by the artist in 1861, and it then was purchased by Hertford for about £520, a considerable sum in those days.

Study for Polichinelle (c.1873)Of course, it was quite appropriate to have characters such as Punch in the boudoirs of courtesans, louche and lewd as he is. But this was not all that Meissonier executed. He had a keen nose for business, and was aware that there was much interest in art that reflected the past, especially the 18th century. Indeed, he pandered heavily to this predilection of the wealthy, creating single figures in large numbers, mostly cavaliers. And, while the likes of Watteau were much more decorous in their depictions of the Commedia dell'arte, Meissonier had no such sensibilities and eschewed all nostalgic charm.

Interestingly, Manet appears to have been inspired by Meissonier's Punch. Only a dozen or so years later, he came up with a much more tender representation of the figure. There was a feeling abroad at the time that he was depicting (and poking fun at) Marshal MacMahon who had bloodily suppressed the Paris Commune. The government of the time censored it. He made several studies of the piece, modelled by his friend Edmond André, and executed a lithograph as well. Above right, we have one of those studies.

Further Reading:
Stephen Duffy and Jo Hedley, The Wallace Collection’s Pictures. A Complete Catalogue, London, The Wallace Collection, 2004.


Space Bar said...

You might also be interested in the Pulcinellopedia.

Fëanor said...

Thanks for that, SB. That's a strange and wonderful site, eh?

Space Bar said...

you bet. i discovered it on the day misteraitch stopped blogging and i'm grateful that he's left the archives open fro reading. sure you'll find plenty there to interest you.

Post a Comment