1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Méryon, Charles

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MÉRYON, CHARLES (1821–1863), French etcher, was born in Paris in 1821. His father was an English physician, his mother a French dancer. It was to his mother's care that Méryon's childhood was confided. But she' died when he was still young, and Méryon entered the French navy, and in the corvette “ Le Rhin " made the voyage round the world. He was already a draughtsman, for on the coast of New Zealand he made pencil drawings which he was able to employ, years afterwards, as studies for etchings of the landscape of those regions. The artistic instinct developed, and, while he was yet a lieutenant, Méryon left the navy. Finding that he was colour-blind, he determined to devote himself to etching. He entered thework room of one Bléry, from whom he learnt something of technical matters, and to whom he always remained grateful. Méryon was by this time poor. It is understood that he might have had assistance from his kindred, but he was too proud to ask it. And thus he was reduced to the need of executing for the sake of daily bread much work that was mechanical and irksome. Among learners' work, done for his own advantage, are to be counted some studies after the Dutch etchers such as Zeeman and Adrian van de Velde. Having proved himself a surprising copyist, he proceeded to labour of his own, and began that series of etchings which are the greatest embodiments of his greatest conceptions—the series called “ Eaux-fortessur Paris.” These plates, executed from 1850 to 1854, are never to be met with as a set; they were never expressly published as, a set. But they none the less constituted in Méryon's mind an harmonious series.

Besides the twenty-two etchings "' sur Paris,” characterized below, Méryon did seventy-two etchings of one, sort and another—ninety-four in all being catalogued in Wedmore's Méryon and Méryon's Paris; but these include the works of his apprenticeship and of his decline, adroit copies in which his best success was in the sinking of his own individuality, and more or less dull portraits. Yet among the seventy-two prints outside his professed series there are at least a dozen that will aid his fame. Three or four beautiful etchings of Paris do not belong to the series at all. Two or three etchings, again, are devoted to the illustration of Bourges, a city in which the old wooden houses were as attractive to him for their own sakes as were the stone-built monuments of Paris. But generally it was when Paris engaged him that he succeeded the most. He would have done more work, however—though he could hardly have done better work—if the material difficulties of his life had not pressed, upon him and shortened his days. He was a bachelor, unhappy in love, and yet, it is related, almost as constantly occupied with love as with work. The depth of his imagination and the surprising mastery which he achieved almost from the beginning in the technicalities of his craft were appreciated only by a few artists, critics and connoisseurs, and he could not sell his etchings, or could sell them only for about 10d. apiece. Disappointment told upon him, and, frugal as was his way of' life, poverty must have affected him. He became subject to hallucinations. Enemies, he said, waited for him at the corners of the streets; his few friends robbed him or owed him that which they would never pay. A few years after the completion of his Paris series he was lodged in the madhouse of Charenton. Its order and care restored him for a while to health, and he came out and did a little more work, but at bottom he was exhausted. In 1867 he returned to his asylum, and died there in 1868. In the middle years of his life, just before he was placed under confinement, he was much associated with Bracquemond and with Flameng,—skilled practitioners of etching, while he was himself an undeniable genius—and the best of the portraits we have of him is that one by Bracquemond under which the sitter wrote that it represented “ the sombre Méryon with the grotesque visage.”

There are twenty-two pieces in the Eaux-fortes sur Paris. Some of them are insignificant. That is because ten out of the twenty-two were destined as headpiece, tailpiece, or running commentary on some more important plate. But each has its value, and certain of the smaller pieces throw great light on the aim of the entire set. Thus, one little plate—not a picture at all—is devoted to the record of verses made by Méryon, the purpose of which is to lament the life of Paris. The misery and poverty of the town Méryon had to illustrate, as well as its splendour. The art of Méryon is completely misconceived when his etchings are spoken of as views of Paris. They are often “ views,” but they are so just so far as is compatible with their being likewise the visions of a poet and the compositions of an artist. It was an epic of Paris that Méryon determined to make, coloured strongly by his personal sentiment, and affected here and there by the occurrences of the moment—in more than one case, for instance, he hurried with particular affection to etch his impression of some old-world building which was on the point of destruction. Nearly every etching in the series is an instance of technical skill, but even the technical skill is exercised most happily in those etchings which have the advantage of impressive subjects, and which the collector willingly cherishes for their mysterious suggestiveness or for their pure beauty. Of these, the Abside de Notre Dame is the general favourite; it is commonly held to be Méryon's masterpiece. Light and shade play wonderfully over the great fabric of the church, seen over the spaces of the river. As a draughtsman of architecture, Méryon was complete; his sympathy with its various styles was broad, and his work on its various styles unbiased and of equal perfection—a point in which it is curious to contrast him with Turner, who, in drawing Gothic, often drew it with want of appreciation. It is evident that architecture must enter largely into any representation of a city, however much such representation may be a vision, and however little a chronicle. Besides, the architectural portion even of Méryon's labour is but indirectly imaginative; to the imagination he has given freer play in his dealings with the figure, whether the people of the street or of the river or the people who, when he is most frankly or even wildly symbolical, crowd the sky. Generally speaking, his figures are, as regards draughtsmanship, “ landscape-painter's figures.” They are drawn more with an eye to grace than to academic correctness. But they are not “ landscape-painter's figures ” at all when what we are concerned with is not the method of their representation but the purpose of their introduction. They are seen then to be in exceptional accord with the sentiment of the scene. Sometimes, as in the case of La Morgue, it is they who tell the story of the picture. Sometimes, as in the case of La Rue des Mauves Garçons—with the two passing women bent together in secret converse—they at least suggest it. And sometimes, as in L'Arche du Pont Notre Dame, it is their expressive gesture and eager action that give vitality and animation to the scene. Dealing perfectly with architecture, and perfectly, as far as concerned his peculiar purpose, with humanity in his art, Méryon was little called upon by the character of his subjects to deal with Nature. He drew trees but badly, never representing foliage happily, either in detail or in mass. But to render the characteristics of the city, it was necessary that he should know how to portray a certain kind of water-river-water, mostly sluggish—and a certain kind of sky—the grey obscured and lower sky that broods over a world of roof and chimney. This water and 'this sky Méryon is thoroughly master of; he notes with observant affection their changes in all lights.

Méryon's excellent draughtsmanship, and his keen appreciation of light, shade and tone, were, of course, helps to his becoming a great etcher. But a living authority, himself an eminent etcher, and admiring Méryon thoroughly, has called Méryon by preference a great original engraver—so little of Méryon's work accords with Sir Seymour Haden's view of etching. Méryon was anything but a brilliant sketcher; and, if an artist's success in etching is to be gauged chiefly by the rapidity with which he records an impression, Méryon's success was not great. There can be no doubt that his work was laborious and deliberate, instead of swift and impulsive, and that of some other virtues of the etcher—“ selection” and “ abstraction ” as Hamerton has defined them—he shows small trace. But a genius like Méryon is a law unto himself, or rather in his practice of his art he makes the laws by which that art and he are to be judged.

It is worth while to note the extraordinary enhancement in the value of Méryon's prints. Probably of no other artist of genius, not even of Whistler, could there be cited within the same period a rise in prices of at all the same proportion. Thus the first state of the " Stryge "—that “ with the verses,”—selling under 'the hammer in 1873 for £5, sold again under the hammer in 1905 for £100. The first state of the “ Galérie de Notre Dame," selling in 1873 for £5, and at M. Wasset's sale in 1880 for £11, fetched in 1905, £52. A “Tour de l'horloge,” which two or three years after it was first issued sold for half a crown, in May 1903 fetched £70. A first state (Wedmore's, not of course M. Delteil's “ first state,” which, like nearly all his first states, is in fact a trial proof) of the “ Saint Etienne du mont,” realizing about £2 at M. Burty's sale in 1876, realized £60 at a sale in May 1906. The second state of the “ Morgue ” (Wedmore) sold in 1905 for £65; and Wedmore's second of the “ Abside," which used to sell throughout the 'seventies for £3 or £5, reached in November 1906 more than £200. At no period have even Dürers or Rembrandts risen so swiftly and steadily.

Bibliography.—Philippe Burty, Gazette des beaux arts (1865); Descriptive Catalogue of the Works of Méryon (London, 1879); Aglaüs Bouvenne, Notes et souvenirs sur Charles Méryon; P. G. Hamerton, Etching and Etchers (1868); F. Seymour Haden, Notes on Etching; H. Béraldi, Les Peintres graveurs du dix-neuvième siècle; Baudelaire, Lettres de Baudelaire (1907); L. Delteil, Charles Méryon (1907); Frederick Wedmore, Méryon and Méryon's Paris, with a descriptive catalogue, of the artist's work (1879; 2nd ed., 1892); and Fine Prints (1896; 2nd ed., 1905).  (F. We.)