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BIOGRAPHY - Hugues Merle (1823 - 1881)

Hugues Merle was a well-known painter during the middle decades of the nineteenth century when academic realism and naturalism held center stage in the Parisian art world. His work was acclaimed and eagerly sought out by patrons both in Europe and the United States. As art historian Lorenz Eitner notes in French Painting of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: Before Impressionism, “His greatest popular successes, however, were won by scenes of maternal affection and childhood innocence that he sought to imbue with impish sweetness and sentimentality.” [i] In spite of his prominence during his lifetime, Merle’s name is less well known today, and consequently, scholarship about his life and career is somewhat scanty.

He was born in 1823 in the small village Saint-Marcellin in the Isère river valley in southeastern France. Although the population was only about 3000 people in the 1820s, Saint-Marcellin dates back to Roman times. More significantly, it was well positioned along one of the many medieval pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela, in this case not far from the Abbey of Saint Antoine, one of the major stops for the pilgrims. [ii]  In Merle’s time, the medieval complex of buildings was still substantially intact, and in fact, it was designated an Historic Monument in 1840. The Abbey Church in particular exemplifies the development of gothic architecture from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, and includes myriad exterior sculptures as well as interior frescoes. It seems likely that Merle would have seen this art during his childhood. Beyond this, there is little known about the artist’s early years. It is probably fair to assume that his family were reasonably comfortable in this small community, and that he must have received some type of art education there.

In approximately 1843, he turned up in Paris as an art student studying in the private atelier of Léon Cogniet (1794-1880), who had recently completed a large fresco of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt on the ceiling of what is now Room 44 in the Sully Wing of the Louvre. [iii] Cogniet had studied with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin at the École des Beaux-Arts, and his work reflected the neoclassical training that was the preeminent mode of instruction in the Napoleonic era. When he began to teach, this approach remained the foundation of his pedagogical methodology, but with the addition of what art historian Albert Boime referred to as “the sauce Cogniet”. [iv] The primary ingredient of this special “sauce” was an emphasis on the importance of sketching rapidly to develop a composition. The resulting paintings typically possessed a sense of immediacy that would have been foreign in the more deliberative images of neoclassicism.

During his time in Cogniet’s studio, Merle would have met a number of other students who would later become leading academic realists in mid-century Paris. His own progress seems to have been impressive—in a painting from 1846, Merle tackled an ambitious multi-figure composition entitled The Temptation of Saint Anthony.  Religious subjects were traditional for art students, but the twenty-three-year-old Merle’s choice of this particular saint harks back to the Abbey of Saint Antoine near his home town; it also gives rise to a question about whether or not some of gruesome demons tormenting the elderly saint were based on the sculpture and/or frescoes at the Abbey Church.

One year later, in 1847, Merle made his debut at the Salon with the painting Portrait de l’auteur just four years after beginning his studies with Cogniet. The address he listed in the Salon catalogue was 9, rue Chaudron, Barriere, Menilmontant in the northernmost blocks of the tenth arrondissement. [v] In 1848, he exhibited the Légende des Willis, a Romantic rendition of the legend of the “willis”, the spectres of young (and always beautiful) women who died before their wedding days. Merle’s subject matter in this case was undoubtedly based on the ballet, Giselle, which premiered in Paris in 1841. In this canvas the exquisitely painted willis are fading back into the world of spirit as the sun rises above a lake, thus preventing them from carrying off the hero, Albrecht. The painting shows a clear debt to Cogniet, and more specifically to Guérin, in its idiosyncratic blend of classicism and romanticism—impressive compositional and drawing skills in the service of an emotional and uncanny subject.

Merle’s art education was interrupted on February 24, 1848 when revolution broke out in the streets of Paris. After eighteen years of the corrupt government under the “citizen king” Louis-Phillippe, democratic forces succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the Second Republic. Many of the freedoms proclaimed during the French Revolution of 1789 were restored; and for the arts community of Paris, the occasionally oppressive power of the Salon juries and the École des Beaux-Arts was lightened. The Salon of 1849 accepted not only Realist painters such as Rosa Bonheur, François Bonvin and Gustave Courbet, but also the Barbizon painters whose work had been consistently rejected by the juries for nearly two decades. In addition, a new group of “academic Realists” appeared as well; painters like Alexandre Antigna and Octave Tassaert painted in a mainstream style while their choice of subjects demonstrated a keen awareness of the social justice issues of the day.

In the headiness of the newly formed democratic government, and the excitement of a more diverse and challenging selection of Salon contributions, Merle seems to have begun a more experimental phase in his own career. One of the paintings that expresses a new Realist aesthetic is a canvas showing the wine harvest near Saint-Marcellin. This work demonstrates not only that the painter visited his home town with some regularity, but also that he had been looking carefully at the work of Courbet and Jean-François Millet. Vendangeur dauphinois dans les environs de Saint-Marcellin (1850) utilizes the strongly horizontal format of Courbet’s controversial Burial at Ornans, and more importantly, embraces the subject matter of rural labor similar to Millet’s image of The Sower; both this work and Burial at Ornans were shown at the 1849 Salon. The subject of the wine harvest was not new, but Merle’s handling of it reflects the changing aesthetic of the times. He has depicted not an idyllic or mythical Arcadian setting, but the mountainous landscape of the Rhone-Alpine region. And although the composition may echo renaissance processionals of Greek gods and goddesses in format, the figures are unmistakably French rural workers. Like Antigna and Tassaert, Merle has utilized his classical training to convey a more contemporary meaning.

The all too brief years of the Second Republic were also a time of personal change for Merle. In addition to developing his own unique style, he married and became a father. His son Georges, who later became a painter in his own right, was born in 1851. Merle also seems to have established himself as a portrait painter during this period, perhaps because it was a more secure means of making a living for his young family. It was probably during this time that he moved to rue de Lancry, 53 near the Canal St. Martin in the tenth arrondissement. In the mid-nineteenth century, this working-class neighborhood was distinguished by the proximity to the canal, then still a commercial waterway as well as a pleasant green space.

Life in Paris was far from calm, however, at the end of 1851 when Louis-Napoléon (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) staged a coup d’état on December 2 and proclaimed himself emperor. In spite of this setback for democracy, some of the revolutionary freedoms remained in place, including universal suffrage for men. For the artists of Paris, it meant a return to a more conservative Salon jury.  In Merle’s work, this change is most evident in Heroine of the Faith, a painting from 1854 showing a female virgin Christian martyr being sentenced to death in ancient Rome.

Merle’s reputation as a portraitist and as a painter of literary genre scenes grew significantly during the 1850s. In 1855, his Salon submissions included three paintings based on literary sources, and in 1857, he exhibited two portraits and a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory in Grenoble in May 1815. It should be noted that Merle came from the region surrounding the city of Grenoble, so the subject of Napoleon’s victory there helped to identify him with the supporters of the new emperor’s uncle. [vi] With success in the marketplace, his financial position also improved, and he was able to move his family to the left bank of the Seine by the spring of 1857. Their home at rue Racine 3 was very close to the Sorbonne and the Pantheon in the heart of the Latin Quarter.

As an increasingly successful and prominent painter, Merle began to attract the attention of serious art collectors. One of the earliest was Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-1870) who purchased Reading the Bible, one of Merle’s submissions to the 1859 Paris Salon. [vii] At first glance, this canvas seems relatively anodyne to a contemporary viewer—the scene consists of two appealing orphan girls being taught by a nun. Beneath the surface, however, lies one of the most controversial issues of mid-century France—the role of religion and education in the civic and political life of the nation. In 1859, this image was a political statement about the efficacy of religious orders not only in teaching, but also in providing care for destitute youth.

In the 1860s, Merle’s patronage expanded to include American collectors such as William Walters of Baltimore who commissioned The Scarlet Letter, a painting based on the book by Nathaniel Hawthorne, first published in 1850. Merle exhibited the composition at the 1861 Salon along with another canvas, Une mendiante. Both of these works display an awareness of the desperate situations in which many women found themselves, the character of Hester Prynne for having had a “illegitimate” child by a local minister, and the beggar girl in Une mendiante for simply being poor. As Théophile Gautier commented in his Salon review: “What deep despair, what distressing anguish ... An inhospitable haze blurs the houses and perspectives of the streets; no one appears in time, and the poor girl’s sad situation may endure for a long time." [viii] Although these comments described Une mendiante, they might equally well have described The Scarlet Letter, an image of Hester clasping her daughter Pearl to her breast while the spineless Reverend Dimmesdale scuttles away in the foggy background with the vengeful Roger Chillingworth. Likewise, a small watercolor from 1862, entitled The Good Sister, shows a ragged young girl, perhaps ten years old, cradling her baby sister in her arms as they sit on a rough stone step; an empty bowl with a spoon rest nearby. There is little sentimentality in these works, but instead a direct statement about the condition that working class and poor people experienced during the Second Empire. This empathy for the poor and downtrodden in Merle’s work bears noting; it is in keeping with the work by other academic Realists in its emphasis on the struggle of ordinary people.

In contrast, Merle also continued to produce more mainstream genre scenes such as The First Thorns of Knowledge, (1864), a painting once owned by the Duc de Morny, the emperor’s half-brother. Here, a young mother attempts to teach her young son his ABCs, but he resists her efforts with a sulky face and unhappy expression. Merle seems to be both sympathetic to the son’s reluctance and wryly accepting of the need for learning one’s letters. It is a scene that parents everywhere would undoubtedly appreciate, and it proved to be a type of painting that was enormously popular.

By the 1860s, Merle was well established in his career, and settled in yet another new home, this time at the rue de Fleurus, 26 near the Luxembourg Garden in the sixth arrondissement. He was officially recognized at the Salon with second-class medals in 1861 and again in 1863. In 1866, he became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.  Perhaps even more significant to the development of his career was his friendship with Paul Durand-Ruel, whom he met in 1862, shortly after the art dealer’s marriage to Eva Lafon. The two men became lifelong friends and it was to Merle that Durand-Ruel turned for portraits of his wife and himself in the mid-1860s. Completed about a year apart, the portraits function as a pair meant to be displayed side by side.

In her essay in the 2014 exhibition catalogue, Inventing Impressionism, Sylvie Patry explained just how important Merle’s work was to the success of Durand-Ruel’s gallery, noting that the artist’s paintings “were essential to the life of the gallery and its economic stability.” According to the art critic Charles Blanc, Merle’s genre scenes were so popular that they were often purchased before they were painted. [ix] These paintings not only commanded excellent prices, but they were also the bread and butter of Durand-Ruel’s sales in London and Brussels, and eventually in New York. In addition, the dealer sold numerous engravings and photographs of Merle’s images to middle-class art lovers for the modest price of 25 francs. From Merle’s perspective, his association with Durand-Ruel was extremely productive; his paintings sold well, and his friend and dealer marketed his work to an international audience.

The later years of the 1860s included another new development for Merle as he began to accept students in his atelier. In the 1868 Salon catalogue, Merle’s name appeared for the first time as a teacher for Henriette Grosso, who exhibited two paintings that year. [x] Four years later, in 1872, Elisabeth Jane Gardner of New Hampshire also listed Merle as her mentor in the Salon catalogue; she received a gold medal for her painting, Cendrillon. [xi]

In spite of his success, Merle’s life was disrupted when Emperor Napoleon III declared war against Prussia in 1870. This ill-considered decision left France in ruins, without functioning bridges, roads or railways and facing the occupation of Paris by Prussian troops until the war debt imposed by the victors was paid. There is no record of Merle’s activities during the war years; like many others, he may have fled to the countryside, perhaps back to Saint-Marcellin, or even to London. His paintings however, traveled with Durand-Ruel to London where they were displayed as part of the International Exposition in South Kensington in the summer of 1871.

In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, Merle again moved his family to new quarters in 1874, this time to a modern Beaux-Arts apartment block near the Parc Monceau in the eighth arrondissement. This neighborhood was part of the massive urban design project begun under the direction of Baron Haussmann during the Second Empire, and the Parc Monceau area was especially elegant and prestigious. Merle would maintain his residence on the rue de Lisbonne until his death.

As the 1870s drew to a close, Merle’s work became ever more focused on religious imagery. In 1879 he exhibited Le Rédempteur (The Redeemer) at the Salon and also painted St. Elizabeth of Hungary. These two works suggest that Merle was exploring new directions, albeit rather different from each other. Le Rédempteur is clearly based on the renaissance model of the Virgin presenting the Christ child as the redeemer of humanity, but it this case, the Virgin looks downward, away from the viewer. The most radical element, however, is the figure of the Christ child, who is outlandishly out of proportion to his mother as he extends his hand in a gesture of blessing.

Equally unusual, although in a completely different stylistic vocabulary, is the almost Byzantine image of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Known as the patron saint of the poor and homeless, the saint is shown with solid golden halo positioned in front of tiny blue tiles that might well have been copied from a genuine icon in the Orthodox Christian tradition. The flatness of these elements makes the contrast with her idealized and carefully modeled face even more stark. It is impossible to tell if this image was a personal devotional painting or perhaps a commission from one of the Catholic charities working in Paris such as the Sisters of Mercy. Both St. Elisabeth and Le Rédempteur are related to Merle’s lifelong interest in religious imagery, but they are also stylistic experiments that hint at Symbolist tendencies that will become more common in the 1880s and 1890s.

Sadly, Merle did not live to continue with this new exploration in his art. He exhibited at the Salon of 1880 and died the following year at age fifty-eight in Paris.

Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.

Selected Museums

Dallas Museum of Art
Detroit Institute of Arts
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Musée de Grenoble
Musée des Augustins, Hazebrouck, France
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
National Gallery Art, Washington, DC
Wallace Collection, London
Walters Museum of Art, Baltimore


[i] Lorenz Eitner, French Painting of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: Before Impressionism (Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, Distributed by Oxford University Press, 2000) 310-312.

[ii] The Order of St. Anthony, founded in 1297, built the abbey to house the relics of St. Anthony of Egypt, who was believed to heal the sick. The Antonine monks also built a hospital as part of the abbey complex. Pilgrims routinely stopped here to pray for healing during the middle ages.

[iii] The date of 1843 is based on the fact that Cogniet opened his atelier to male students in that year. Prior to that time, he worked as a portraitist and history painter as well as overseeing a painting workshop for women that was primarily taught by his sister, Marie Amélie Cogniet (1798-1869).  Merle could not have studied with Cogniet before that time.

[iv] Albert Boime, The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986) 104.

[v] Explication des ouvrages de peinture et dessins, sculpture, architecture et gravure et lithographie des artistes vivant (Paris:  Vinchon, Imprimeur des musées nationaux,  1847) 128.  The address that Merle listed was 9 rue Chaudron located in the tenth arrondissement of Paris. By 1848, he would move to a more salubrious area of the arrondissement near the Canal St. Martin at 9 rue Grange aux Belles.

[vi] For the 1855 Salon, see Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivant (Paris: Vinchon, Imprimeur des musées royaux, 1855) 391.  For the 1857 Salon, see Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivant (Paris: Charles de Mourgues Frères, Imprimeurs des musées impériaux, 1857) 243.

[vii] The 4th Marquess of Hertford was one of the most prolific and astute collectors of the nineteenth century. Merle’s painting is now in the Wallace Collection, London, having passed by inheritance to the Marquess’ heirs after his death in Paris in 1870. See J. Ingamells, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures II  (London: The Wallace Collection, 1985) 182-183.

[viii] Théophile Gautier, Abécédaire du Salon de 1861 (Paris, 1861) 283. “Quel profond désespoir, quelles angoisses navrantes ... Une brume inhospitalière  estompe les maisons et les perspectives des rues; personne ne sort de ce temps-là, et la pauvre fille risque de prolonger longtemps encore sa triste station.”  For a fuller discussion of The Scarlet Letter, see  Hugh J. Dawson, “ ‘Hester et Perle’ and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter”, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, vol. 44, 1986: 123-127.

[ix] Sylvie Patry, ed., Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market (London: National Gallery Company; distributed by Yale University Press, 2014) 19. Patry notes too that Durand-Ruel would pay Merle 10,000 francs for a genre painting, while works by Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet brought only 100-200 francs from the dealer.

[x] Explication des ouvrages de peinture et dessins, sculpture, architecture et gravure et lithographie des artistes vivant (Paris: Charles de Mourgues Frères, Imprimeurs des musées impériaux, 1868) 143.

[xi] Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivant (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1972) 101.  Gardner was not only the first American woman to exhibit at the Salon (in 1868) but also the first to win a gold medal.

Sold Works
La lecture - Hugues Merle
Hugues Merle
(1823 - 1881)
La lecture
Oil on canvas
45 3/4 x 35 1/8 inches
Signed and dated 1869