Monday, February 7, 2011

Two sides to every story: a copperplate of Charles Meryon

Charles Meryon was born in Batignolles, Paris, on 23 November 1821, and died in the mental hospital at Charenton on 14 February 1868, at the age of just 46. His name is indelibly associated with the city, which he depicted in etchings of incredible subtlety. Yet Meryon was a cuckoo in the Parisian nest. He was the illegitimate son of Narcisse Chaspaux, a dancer at the Paris opera house, and Charles Lewis Meryon, an itinerant English doctor. This ancestry may explain the uncertainty as to whether his surname should be spelled Meryon or Méryon—authorities differ, as they do about whether his mother was French or Spanish. Narcisse Chaspaux died insane in 1837, the year Charles Meryon entered the École navale. His naval career lasted until 1842, taking him both to Athens and to the South Pacific. In the course of these voyages he made many sketches, and eventually he resolved to become an artist. However, it soon became apparent that he was colour-blind, and that a career as a painter was out of the question. So he turned to etching, studying the art in the studio of Eugène Bléry (1805-1886), whose meticulous standards of observation Meryon maintained.

Eugène Bléry, Vue du château de Nemours
Etching, 1851

I have an interesting pair of Meryon etchings. The first is one of his Parisian scenes, Le Petit Pont. This was actually his first important work, exhibited at the Salon of 1850. My impression is from the cancelled plate. As you can see, Charles Meryon has not been content simply to mark an X from corner to corner, or make a discreet cancellation mark in the bottom lefthand corner. Instead he has attacked the plate with a drypoint needle, scratching a rhythmic welter of diagonal marks across the whole composition, as if he has lashed it with a whip. Ironically, this intended destruction of the piece has not quite worked, as to a modern eye the combination of Canaletto-like calm and expressionistic fury is rather pleasing. Meryon’s Paris seems to be being both destroyed and remade under our gaze. There is an image of the uncancelled plate in this post by John Coulthart at feuilleton.

Charles Meryon, Le Petit Pont (from the cancelled plate)
Etching, 1850

Having put Le Petit Pont beyond use, as he thought, Charles Meryon then turned the copperplate over, rotated it by 90 degrees, and used it to etch my second work, Vue de l’ancien Louvre, after a painting by the Dutch artist Reinier Nooms, known as Zeeman (1623-1667). This interpretative etching was commissioned from Meryon in 1865 by the all-powerful surintendant des Beaux-Arts, M. de Nieuwerkerke, for publication by the Chalcographie du Louvre, and executed the following year. Meryon had already made four etchings after Zeeman as part of his apprenticeship, having been particularly impressed both by Zeeman’s etchings of Paris and his marine sujects. He etched the plate for Vue de l’ancien Louvre directly in front of the painting, holding in one hand the plate and a reversing mirror, and in the other his etching needle.

Charles Meryon, Vue de l’ancien Louvre
Etching after Zeeman, 1866

It was Meryon’s custom, as we have seen with Le Petit Pont, to cancel his plates after a small edition. In fact he was quite obsessive about this. In the case of the Vue de l’ancien Louvre, however, he was stymied. He marched up to the Louvre to reclaim the plate, and when this was refused flew into a temper and laid about him with his cane. After creating this ruckus, Meryon left in a state of great vexation, while for their part the authorities at the Louvre resolved never to commission work again from such a rowdy and unreasonable character. As a result, the Chalcographie du Louvre contains the only surviving copperplate of Charles Meryon, from which my impressions of the two contrasting sides were printed by Vernant in 1922, in an edition of 605 copies for Byblis. They accompanied an article by Pierre Gusman, “Histoire d’une planche de Meryon”.

The row at the Louvre was evidence of an underlying mental problem; Meryon had from May 1858 spent fifteen months in the asylum at Charenton, and he seems to have suffered from delusions and paranoia. It may be that the sense of order that dominates Meryon’s 102 etchings is evidence of a temperament that was always threatening to explode out of control, and that the excessive violence with which he cancelled the plate of Le Petit Pont shows how strongly an appetite for destruction counterbalanced Charles Meryon’s creative instinct.


Gerrie said...

great story, very informative reading, thanks !

Neil said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Gerrie, It interests me that an artist such as Meryon, once regarded as a towering figure, can fall so far out of view. There's very little on him on the internet, not even a decent Wikipedia entry.

Gerrie said...

Yes I agree, interesting and sad also. A faith shared by many, I'm afraid most, of the wonderful artists we (re)discover and free from obscurity by way of our investgations and Blogs. That's rewarding isn't it? Come to it there are hardly any to us famous printers that have been awarded official publications or websites. Gustave Baumann, Henri Rivière, and maybe a handfull of others. I'm sure the Wikipedia entries will follow.

Jane Librizzi said...

It would take a hard heart not to sympathize with Meryon's artistic frustrations. First the colorblindness and then the loss of control that comes from multiple images.

Neil said...

Gerrie - I must make more effort to add exceptional websites to my blogroll. Oten quite obscure artists have really good websites because their families have put huge effort into cataloguing their work and recording their lives. The Jacques Beurdeley site listed under Single Artist Blogs and Websites is a a good example.

Neil said...

Jane - It's heartbreaking to think of Meryon receiving the news that his colour sense was imperfect. He was so intent on being an artist that he submitted the black-and-white sketch of his intended masterpiece, "Assassinat du capitaine Marion du Frène à la Nouvelle-Zélande, le 2 août 1772" to the Salon of 1848. But I think we can tell from the title of this proposed work that the world was better-off with Meryon's monochrome vision of Paris than it would have been with his coloured history paintings. It's just sad that when Baudelaire approached Meryon to illustrate his poems the two men - both mentally troubled - could not agree.