In Ross King’s ‘The Judgement of Paris’, there’s an entertaining comparison between the working methods of Manet and Meissonier. In his rush to wow the Salon of 1868, Manet repeatedly bungled his ambitious canvas of the execution of Mexico’s Emperor Maximilan. The event was fresh and shocking, but Manet was not one for research. He was competing with the likes of Goya and Gericault- timing was everything, details be damned. As a result, as technicalities about uniforms and an absence of sombreros trickled over the Atlantic, there was a lot of cursing and revision.
Meissonier, the most successful painter in Europe, never had these problems. His petite canvases of cavaliers and Napoleonic triumphs were the result of painstaking research. He was a history buff. He could afford to buy every required prop, was dedicated enough to sow the field of one battlefield setting with the correct wheat, and then have it trampled by a suitable number of horses.
The question of whether to blindly charge or carefully besiege history painting came to mind this summer as I sat at the State Archives in Montgomery, chatting to bona fide historians about Demopolis. Faced with their study and expertise, I realized I was merely an eager amateur. Betje Klier was completing a book on a 19th c. hand-painted wallpaper that depicted the exiles. So far, I had done no more than rely on the costume shop down the hall.
The Archives held only a few relics of the Bonapartist exiles, but they were enough to inspire me. I could at least find an accurate dress for Amy to wear as she modeled the Marchioness in the Canebrakes. The series was always intentionally symbolist in nature: hence the focus on this sole, pining figure, but painters that play with the surreal have always known it is best to anchor imagination with factual elements.
I was visiting Montgomery on my way to Demopolis. Earlier in the summer, I realized that 2017 marked the 200th anniversary of the settler’s arrival. I had a fair number of large canvases completed, and decided that in some way I should get them to Demopolis this year, even if it meant renting an empty storefront to display them. As the story of the Vine and Olive Colony had been the catalyst to bring me to the South, taking these paintings back for this bicentennial felt a completion of nearly thirty years painting the South.
I started reaching out, and soon made contact with the Marengo County Historical Society. As it turned out, they already had a gala planned for September, with concerts and tours of the town’s many historic homes. They were more than happy to show the paintings as part of the celebration, and suggested they might be displayed in Lyon Hall, an antebellum mansion near the center of town.
Kirk Brooker, the Executive Director met me there. Over the years and across the South, I have searched for old properties, left abandoned or untouched, to record on canvas. Lyon Hall, ‘stabilized’ rather than fully restored, turned out to be as ideal a subject as any I had discovered. I went from room to room with growing excitement. It was decided that I should bring my painting gear in September. I would work on some interiors while people toured the home and viewed the paintings of Madame Raoul.
Back in Asheville, I began a search for a costume. I wanted a dress that would suit further paintings, but also be fully functional- something that Amy could wear to the Bicenntenial if she was able to attend. We both agreed it would great if she could drift from room to room in Lyon Hall, an apparition of Madame Raoul among the paintings.
A small company in France specialized in clothing and paraphernalia for Napoleonic reenactors, but September was too soon for them to make and deliver a dress. Amy is both a seamstress and clothing designer. We put her skills to use. We pored over the paintings of David and Ingres, studied fashion plates from the last decade of Napoleon’s rule, then headed for the fabric stores of Asheville.