meryon paris etchings mdryon series etching technical little
MERTON, CHARLES (1821--1868). The name of Mdryon is associated with that spirited revival of etching in France which took place inn the middle of the 19th century, - say from 1850 to 1865, - but it is rather by the individuality of his own achievements, and the strength of his artistic nature, than by the influence he exercised that Mdryon best deserves fame. No doubt his work encouraged others to employ the same medium of expression, and so great was his own perfection of technique that he may well have been made a model ; but, after all, the medium he selected, and in which he excelled, was but the accident of his art ; he was driven to it in part by stress of circumstances - by colour blindness ; and, even with colour blindness, his extraordinary certainty of hand and his delicate perception of light, aided by his potent imagination, would have made him a great draughtsman not alone upon the copper. - Charles 1116ryon 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 Mdryon's childhood was confided. She was supplied with money, and she gave the boy passionate affection, if not a wise training. But she died when he was still very young, and Mdryon in due time 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, Mdryon left the navy. Finding that he was colour-blind, Mdryon determined to devote himself to etching.. He entered the work-room of one Bldry, from whom he learnt something of technical matters, and to whom he always remained grateful. Mdryon was by this time poor. It is said 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 wholly mechanical and irksome. Resolutely, though unwillingly, he became the hack of his art, doing frequently, from the day when he was first a master of it to the day when insanity disabled him, many dull commissions which paid ill, but paid better than his original works. Among learner's 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-fortes sur 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 Meryou's mind an harmonious series. For him their likenesses and their contrasts were alike studied ; they had a beginning and an end ; and their differences were lost in their unity.
Besides the twenty-two etchings "sur Paris" characterized below, M6ryon did seventy-two etchings of one sort and another, - ninety-four in all being catalogued in Wedmore's .1firyon and Meryon's Avis ; 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 dull and worthless portraits chiefly of forgotten celebrities. 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 lie succeeded the most. He would have clone more work, however, - though he could hardly have clone 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 lie could not sell his etchings, or could sell them only for about 10d. a piece. The fact that his own original work was of incalculably greater value than his best copies of his most celebrated forerunners had not yet impressed itself upon anybody. Disappointment told upon him, and, frugal as was his way of life, poverty must have told on 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 very 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 Meryon with the grotesque visage." And it did.
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 Meryon, the purpose of which is to lament the life of Paris. The misery and poverty of the town :\leryon had to illustrate, as well as its splendour. The art of Meryon is completely misconceived when his etchingsare 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 Meryon 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 Meryon's masterpiece. Light and shade play wonderfully over the great fabric of the church, seen over time spaces of the river. As a draughtsman of architecture, Meryon was complete ; his sympathy with its various styles was broad, and his work on its various styles unbiassed 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 Meryon'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 lie 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 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 Mauvais Garcons, - 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, Meryon 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 pourtray 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 Meryon is thoroughly master of ; he notes with observant affection their changes in all lights.
.Meryon's excellent draughtmanship, and his keen appreciation of light, shade, and tone, were, of course, helps to his becoming a great etcher. But aauthority, himself an eminent etcher, and admiring Meryon thoroughly, has called Meryon by preference a great original engraver, - so little of Meryon's work accords with Mr Haden's view of etching. Me'ryon was anything but a brilliant sketcher ; and, if an artist's success in etching is to he gauged chiefly by the rapidity with which be records an impression, Meryon'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 Mr Harnerton has defined them - lie shows small trace. But a genius like Meryon 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. He was a great etcher, and by his most elaborate labour he seemed somehow to ensure the more completely for his picture that virtue of unity of impression which, it may- well be admitted, oftener belongs to rapid than to deliberate work. In Mhyon's etchings the 17and-work never seems to be in arrear of the thought. As long as the hand-work must continue, the thought and passion are retained. Meryon knows the secrets of his craft as well as did the older masters of it ; but lie turns them to his own purposes. He is unexcelled in strength and in precision, nor is he often rivalled in delicacy. These qualities, and others more distinctly technical, which it would take too long to insist on here, students find in his etchings. But the incommunicable charm of Meryon's prints and their lasting; fascination are due to the fact that, behind all technical qualities, and as their very source and spring, there lies the potent imagination of the artist, poetical and vivid, directing him what to see in his subject, and how to see it. (r. WE.)