Musée d'Orsay: Ernest Meissonier The Barricade

Ernest Meissonier
The Barricade

The Barricade
Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891)
The Barricade
Watercolour, traces of pencil on paper
H. 26; W. 21 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Michèle Bellot

The Barricade, rue de la Mortellerie, June 1848 also known as Memory of Civil War

La barricade [The Barricade]

As an artillery captain in the National Guard, Ernest Meissonier had witnessed the massacre of insurgents on a barricade of the rue de l'Hôtel-de-Ville during the confrontations of June 1848. This watercolour, depicting the outcome of the fight, was always considered, by both the artist and his contemporaries, as a remarkable and unusual work. Almost fifty years after the events, Meissonier described his deep attachment to this work in a letter to the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens: "I am not modest about this drawing, and I am not afraid to say that if I were rich enough to buy it back, I would do so immediately [...] When I painted it, I was still terribly affected by the event I had just witnessed, and believe me, my dear Alfred, those things penetrate your soul when you reproduce them [...] I saw it [the taking of the barricade] in all its horror, its defenders killed, shot, thrown out of the windows, the ground covered with their bodies, the earth still drinking their blood ". The history of this drawing also makes it special as Eugène Delacroix was its first owner.

However, the political interpretation of the work remains difficult. This stems from the existence of a picture (kept at the Musée du Louvre) painted by the artist after his watercolour. The title and certainly the meaning of this "replica" are different. The painting, named June in 1849, became Memory of Civil War when the artist exhibited it at the Salon of 1850-1851. The precision of the version in oil gave it the "indifference of a daguerreotype", which substantiated the accusations of inhumanity raised by some radical critics when they saw this painting.
The watercolour, on the other hand, mainly encountered criticism in the 19th century for the fact that it implicitly allowed the anathema bore by this reactionary and anti-revolutionary artist to be lifted. "Horribly true", with a tragic lyricism totally unexpected in Meissonier's art, usually dedicated to skilful, highly detailed scenes, the dramatic power of The Barricade belies the artist's disaffection with the destiny of the people of his time.

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