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Charles Meryon
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Best known for his prints depicting Paris in the middle of the 19th century, Charles Meryon was one of France’s greatest etchers. Often imbued with mystical or political overtones, his works were collected only by a small group of admirers during his lifetime. He lived in poverty and suffered from mental illness, which led to his death at an early age. Born in Paris on November 23,1821, Meryon was the illegitimate child of a dancer in the Paris Opéra, Pierre-Narcisse Chaspoux (1793-1838) and the English physician Charles Lewis Meryon (1783-1877). He was not acknowledged by his father until 1824. With financial support his father, Meryon entered the Pension Savary school in Passy in 1826 under the name “Gentil,” his mother’s stage name. Using his father’s surname, Meryon entered the École Navale, the French naval Academy at Brest, on the Breton peninsula, in 1837. Beginning in 1839 Meryon spent seven years in the Navy undertaking a series of voyages from Toulon, first on the Alger and then a voyage in 1840 on the Montebello to Algeria, Tunisia, Greece and present-day Turkey. A drawing made on this trip inspired a later etching. He began taking instructions in watercolor from Victor-Joseph-François Courdouan (1810-1893) in Toulon. Promoted to ensign, Meryon sailed on the corvette Rhin on a four-year voyage around the world. His drawings of Oceania, New Caledonia and New Zealand made on this trip inspired etchings as well. After returning to Toulon in 1846, Meryon decided he wished to pursue a career as an artist, took a leave of absence from the Navy, and studied with Charles François Phelippes (d. 1867) in Paris. The following year he traveled to northern France and London, where he visited his half-sister, Eugénie Meryon Broadwood. Meryon resigned from the Navy in 1848. A preliminary drawing for a projected history painting was accepted for exhibition in the Paris Salon of 1848. Work on the painting itself led to the realization that he had a form of color-blindness, confusing red and green. Meryon met the printmaker Eugène-Stanislas-Alexandre Bléry (1805-1887) and discovered etching. He lived and worked with Bléry for several months, copying etchings made by older masters. Meryon was particularly inspired by the prints of Reinier Nooms (known as Zeeman, ca. 1623-1664) depicting Parisian scenes and copied four of them, as well as four of Zeeman’s maritime scenes. Meryon’s best work, the series of twelve prints he issued as Eaux-Fortes sur Paris (Etchings of Paris), was begun in 1849. Meryon completed the first print in the series, Le Petit Pont (S. 20) in 1850; it was accepted for the Salon that year. The rest of the plates in the series were completed over the next four years, with several exhibited at the Salons. In these and other prints Meryon depicted “old Paris” before its reconstruction by Emperor Louis Napoleon (1808-1873) and Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891). A trip in 1848 to Bourges in south-central France provided the inspiration for three plates of an uncompleted suite depicting ancient buildings in that city. While a few patrons collected his work, Meryon was not successful financially. From 1855 his mental health deteriorated, although he continued working. A commission from two real estate speculators for a view of San Francisco, based on daguerreotype photographs taken of the city, took nearly a year to complete (1856, S. 54). The result is a huge print, some 39 inches wide and 9 inches high, one of several Meryon prints in the Museums’ collection. Commissioned by Prosper-Louis, the 7th Duke of Arenberg (1785-1861), to create views of his estates near Brussels, Meryon visited the estate but produced no prints. His mental health worsened, and in May 1858 he was taken to the asylum at Charenton, where he stayed for fifteen months. Meryon made numerous prints after his release, notably a series of prints made from 1860 to 1866 based on drawings made during his voyage to the South Seas. His prints were exhibited at several Salons during the 1860s. His Le Ministère de la Marine (1865, S. 94), with a horde of flying demons attacking the Naval Ministry, was published by the Sociéte des Aquafortistes (Society of Etchers) in 1866. The contemporary critic Philippe Burty (1830-1890) thought that Meryon was responding to the French government’s failure to aid its colony in New Zealand in 1848. In all Meryon created just over 100 prints during his career. Suffering from delusions and semi-starvation, Meryon was taken back to the Charenton asylum in October 1866. He died on February 14, 1868, having refused food. (TNB 11/2013) Selected bibliography: Burke, James D. Charles Meryon: Prints & Drawings. Exhibition catalog. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1974. Schneiderman, Richard S., and Frank W. Raysor, II. The Catalogue Raisonné of the Prints of Charles Meryon. London: Garton & Co. and Scolar Press, 1990.