Ernest Meissonier, “The Hired Assassins”, 1852, Oil on Mahogany Panel, Wallace Collection, National Art Museum, London
Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier was a French painter and illustrator of military and historical subjects, especially of Napoleonic battles.
Meissonier studied first under Jules Potier, then in the studio of Léon Cogniet. In his early years Meissonier spent most of his time making illustrations for the publishers Curmer and Hetzel. However, beginning in 1834 at the age of nineteen, he exhibited regularly at the French Salon, receiving the highest official honours from the middle of the 1840s onward.
Most of Meissonier’s paintings are on a small scale and are concerned with military subjects or with the genre of historical settings. Meissonier’s minute and scrupulous technique was largely derived from the study of Dutch painters of the 17th century. However, the documentary approach of his preparatory study of costume and armour along with his detailed observation of nature (such as his systematic analysis of the movements of horses) links him with the 19th century.
Among Meissonier’s major works are “Napoleon III at Solferino” executed in 1863 and the 1864 painting entitled “1814”, both of which celebrate heroic military campaigns. He also captured the horrors of conflict in works such as “Remembrance of Civil War” painted between 1848 to 1849, which depicts the moment when the Parisian insurgents of 1848 were slaughtered on barracades by the Republican Guard.
“The Hired Assassins” is one of Meissonier’s rare paintings of a dramatic scene where there is an emotional tension between the figures and viewer is invited to be emotionally engaged. In it, the assassins are shown wearing detailed sixteenth-century costume. This painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1852.