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Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815-91)

La Rixe (The Brawl) Signed and dated 1855

Oil on panel | 44.2 x 56.9 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 404872

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  • A row has broken out in a tavern over a game of cards. The table has been overturned and the two antagonists, elegantly dressed in early seventeenth-century-style doublets and breeches, are being restrained by their fellow players. The sense of drama is heightened by the twisting, straining figures and the composition is strengthened by the strong horizontal line which leads the eye from the dagger on the far left, along the various heads and arms to the figure on the right, who is on the verge of drawing his sword. Such romanticised history painting evoking a nostalgic view of the past has its counterpart in the novels of Alexandre Dumas, whose The Three Musketeers (1844) became the most commercially successful French book of the nineteenth century.

    The French painter Ernest Meissonier was one of the best-known artists of his generation, winning numerous medals at the Paris salons and commanding extraordinarily high prices. Among his admirers was the 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-1870), whose fourteen Meissoniers (now London, Wallace Collection) were kept in his Paris house during his lifetime. Meissonier’s historical paintings were painstakingly researched. He often modelled figures in wax when planning a composition, and owned a large collection of historical costumes and weaponry which he used as props.

    La Rixe was one of nine paintings that Meissonier exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, where it was awarded the prestigious Grande Médaille d’Or by the critics. It was especially admired by Prince Albert during his several visits to the exhibition. Unknown to him, it was purchased by the Emperor for 25,000 francs; he presented it to the Prince as a birthday gift. Queen Victoria wrote in her Journal, ‘We lunched with the Emperor & Empress. Both most kindly gave Albert presents, the former a beautiful picture by Meissonier called “La Rixe”, the finest thing in the Exhibition, which Albert had been in such extacies over…’ (Journal 26 August, 1855).

    La Rixe was not the first work by Meissonier to enter the Royal Collection. Queen Victoria had purchased The Village Politicians as a birthday present for Prince Albert in 1847. This painting is now known as Les Trois Amis (the name under which it was engraved) and is in the Taft Museum, Cincinnati.

    An etching after this painting, by Félix Bracquemond, was published by Georges Petit, 1885 (RCIN 502056, 812681). It was the subject of a tableau vivant featurIng the Duke of Connaught and members of the Household, photographed by Hughes & Mullins.

    Signed and dated: JLMeissonier 1855

    Text adapted from Victoria & Albert: Art & Love, London, 2010
    Provenance

    Purchased by Emperor Napoleon III (25,000 francs) and presented to Prince Albert on his birthday, 26 August 1855; loaned to the Royal Scottish Academy for the annual exhibition of 1856; first recorded at Osborne House, 1876

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on panel

    Measurements

    44.2 x 56.9 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    73.3 x 85.8 x 8.7 cm (frame, external)

  • Alternative title(s)

    Une rixe