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French printmaker Charles Meryon (1821-68) was the illegitimate son of a British doctor and a French dancer. He entered the French Naval Academy at Brest in 1837 and travelled widely with his parents. Meryon took drawing lessons in 1840 from Vincent Courdouan (1810–93), from whom he learned elegant precision of line. He served as midshipman on the corvette <em>Le Rhin</em> during its mission to the French possessions in Oceania (1842–6). Meryon drew small but lively sketches of shipboard life, ethnographic studies and topographical views. Signs of mental instability occurred as he resigned from the navy in 1848.

Meryon’s elaborate monochrome cartoon for the <em>Assassination of Marion Dufrêsne in 1772</em> (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington) was exhibited at the 1848 Salon. In his subsequent studies of etching, he began by copying prints by Philippe de Loutherbourg, Salvator Rosa and, most enthusiastically, Reinier Nooms, the Dutch sailor–artist whom he venerated as ‘another self’ and whose Paris views prompted his <em>Etchings of Paris</em>. The first great original from this series, <em>Petit Pont</em>, was shown at the 1850 Salon and was followed by a spectacular sequence of prints: the <em>Clock Tower Turret, Rue de la Tixéranderies, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont</em> and the <em>Notre-Dame Pump</em> (1852), <em>The Chimera</em>, the <em>Arch of the Pont Notre-Dame</em>, the <em>Notre-Dame Gallery</em> and <em>The Pont-Neuf</em> (1853), and, climactically, the <em>Rue des Mauvais-Garçons</em>, <em>The Morgue</em> and the <em>Apse of Notre-Dame</em> (1854). Prior to commercially published editions, principally for the <em>Artiste</em>, most subjects were proofed through numerous states by Meryon himself, who appreciated the effect of printing variation in wiping, ink tint and paper tone and texture, making presentation impressions of brilliance and subtlety. From the outset his admirers realised that for all the clarity and objectivity of his views of the old buildings of Paris, the plates project a mysterious aura and a dream-like, somewhat sinister atmosphere.

From 1855 Meryon’s physical and mental health deteriorated and his incisive style and geometrically crisp composition weakened, although he got increasing recognition—select, but important—from Baudelaire, Gautier, Hugo and others. His precarious livelihood became based on reproductive hack-work, book titles and illustrations, many portraits and ephemera, although the privately commissioned panoramic views of San Francisco of 1856 (based on photographs) is more ambitious. Beset by melancholia and bizarre and complex delusions, Meryon was confined to the asylum at Charenton from 12 May 1858 to 25 August 1859.

When he resumed printmaking, Meryon reworked and modified in hallucinatory manner the earlier Paris views and elaborated new subjects, but both conception and execution had deteriorated in intensity and images of arcane and more obvious allegory intrude on the architectural compositions. Wary of drawing publicly from life, Meryon appended reproductive etchings from Paris drawings by earlier artists to the initial group, and etched a sequence of his youthful drawings made in Oceania, together with a frontispiece, between 1860 and 1866 in a loose and more casually diffuse manner. Friends and admirers attempted to obtain sales and commissions for him. The <em>Ministère de la Marine</em> (1865), the sky replete with Polynesian and marine phantasmagoria, was published by the Société des Aquafortistes in 1866. Also from 1866 dates his sole plate for the Louvre engraving series, the <em>Old Louvre</em>, after a painting by Reinier Nooms.

Although Meryon exhibited in the Salon from 1863 to 1866, his paranoid delusions, semi-starvation and religious mania led to re-admission to Charenton in late 1866. He died there insane in February 1868 and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, with a tomb plaque by Félix Bracquemond, who had etched the two most important portraits of the artist.

<em>The Morgue, Paris </em>is a 19th-century printmaking icon. In his famous <em>Etchings of Paris, </em>Meryon depicted architectural landmarks that were likely to be demolished or moved in Baron Haussmann's comprehensive rebuilding of Paris, such as the Notre-Dame pumphouse (1952-0003-104). The mortuary, in even more distant times an abbatoir (slaughterhouse), built in 1568, was located in the Île de la Cité, the epicentre of Paris. Subsequently the building was moved. A miniature melodrama is being enacted in the print. The lower left of the image shows a body, possibly a suicide, which has recently been pulled from the river and is being taken to the nearby mortuary, supervised by a gendarme. A crowd watches from the wall above. Life and death are mirrored in the light and shadow.

Sources:

Art Gallery of New South Wales, 'The morgue, Paris', https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/6756/

Harley Preston, ‘Meryon, Charles’, in Grove Art Online, https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T056995

Dr Mark Stocker   Curator, Historical International Art  July 2018

Details

  • Title: The Morgue, Paris
  • Creator: Charles Meryon (artist)
  • Date Created: 1854
  • Location: Paris
  • Physical Dimensions: Image: 191mm (width), 218mm (height)
  • Provenance: Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1962
  • Subject Keywords: Cityscapes | Buildings | Apartment houses | Piers & wharves | Morgues & mortuaries | Chimneys | Smoke | People | Dead persons | Crowds | mourners | Boats | Rivers | Paris (France) | Romantic | French
  • Rights: No Known Copyright Restrictions
  • External Link: Te Papa Collections Online
  • Medium: etching and drypoint with some surface tone
  • Support: paper
  • Depicted Location: Paris (France)
  • Registration ID: 1962-0001-21

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