Until the recent appearance of the Baudelaire letters (1841-66) all that we knew of Meryon’s personality and art was to be found in the monograph by Philippe Burty and Béraldi’s Les Graveurs du XIX Siècle. Hamerton had written of the French etcher in 1875 (Etching and Etch-ers), and various anecdotes about his eccentric behaviour were public property. Frederick Wedmore, in his Etching in England, did not hesitate to group Meryon’s name with Rembrandt’s and Jacquemart’s (one feels like employing the Whistlerian formula and asking: Why drag in Jacquemart?); and today, after years of critical indifference, the unhappy copper-scratcher has come into his own. You may find him mentioned in such company as Dürer, Rembrandt, and Whistler. The man who first acclaimed him as worthy of associating with Rembrandt was the critic Charles Baudelaire; and we are indebted to him for new material dealing with the troubled life of Charles Meryon.
On January 8, 186o, Baudelaire wrote to his friend and publisher, Poulet-Malassis, that what he intends to say is worth the bother of writing. Meryon had called, first sending a card upon which he scrawled: “You live in a hotel the name of which doubtless attracted you because of your tastes.” Puzzled by this cryptic introduction, the poet then noted that the address read: Charles Baudelaire, Hôtel de Thébes. He did not stop at a hotel bearing that name, but, fancying him a Theban, Meryon took the matter for granted. This Ietter was forwarded. Meryon appeared. His first question would have startled any but Baudelaire, who prided himself on startling others. The etcher, looking as desperate and `forlorn as in the Bracquemond etched portrait (1853), demanded news of a certain Edgar Poe. Baudelaire responded sadly that he had not known Poe personally. Then he was eagerly asked if he believed in the reality of this Poe. Charles began to suspect the sanity of his visitor. “Because,” added Meryon, “there is a society of littérateurs, very clever, very powerful, and knowing all the ropes.” His reasons for suspecting a cabal formed against him under the guise of Poe’s name were these: The Murders in the Rue Morgue. I made a design of the Morgue an orang-outang. I have been often compared to a monkey. This orang-outang assassinated two women, a mother and daughter. Et moi aussi, j’ai assassiné moralement deux femmes, la mère et sa fille. I have always taken this story as an allusion to my misfortunes. You, M. Baudelaire, would do me a great favour if you could find the date when Edgar Poe, supposing he was not assisted by any one, wrote his tale. I wish to see if this date coincides with my adventures;” After that Baudelaire knew his man.
Meryon spoke with admiration Of Michelet’s Jeanne d’Arc, though he swore the book was not written by Michelet. (Not such a wild shot, though not correct in this particular instance, for the world has since discovered that several books posthumously attributed to Michelet were written by his widow.) The etcher was interested in the cabalistic arts. On one of his large plates he drew some eagles, and when Baudelaire objected that these birds did not frequent Parisian skies he mysteriously whispered “those folks at the Tuileries” often launched as a rite the sacred eagles to study the omens and presages. He was firmly convinced of this. After the termination of the trying visit Baudelaire, with acrid irony, asks him-self why he, with his nerves usually unstrung, did not go quite mad, and he concludes, “Seriously I addressed to Heaven the grateful prayers of a pharisee.”
In March the same year he assures the same correspondent that decidedly Meryon does not know how to conduct himself. He knows nothing of life, neither does he know how to sell his plates or find an editor. His work is very easy to sell. Baudelaire was hardly a practical business man, but, like Poe, he had sense enough to follow his market. He instantly recognised the commercial value of Meryon’s Paris set, but knew the etcher was a hopeless character. He wrote to Poulet-Malassis concerning a proposed purchase of Meryon’s work by the publisher. It never came to anything. The etcher was very suspicious as to paper and printing. He grew violent when the poet asked him to illustrate some little poems and sonnets. Had he, Meryon, not written poems himself? Had not the mighty Victor Hugo addressed flattering words to him? Baudelaire, without losing interest, then thought of Daumier as an illustrator for a new edition of Les Fleurs du Mal. It must not be supposed, however, that Meryon was ungrateful. He was deeply affected by the praise accorded him in Baudelaire’s Salon of 1859. He wrote in February, 1860, sending his Views of Paris to the critic as a feeble acknowledgment of the pleasure he had enjoyed when reading the brilliant interpretative criticism. He said that he had created an epoch in etching –which was the literal truth and he had saved a rapidly vanishing Paris for the pious curiosity of future generations. He speaks of his “naive heart” and hoped that Baudelaire in turn would dream as he did over the plates. This letter was signed simply “Meryon, 20 Rue Duperré.” The acute accent placed over the “e” in his name by the French poet and by biographers, critics, and editors since was never used by the etcher. It took years before Baudelaire could persuade the Parisians that Poe did not spell his name “Edgard Pod.” And we remember the fate of Liszt and Whistler, who were until recently known in Paris as “Litz” and “Wishtler.” With the aid of Champfleury and Banville, Baudelaire tried to bring Meryon’s art to the cognisance of the Minister of Beaux-Arts, but to no avail. Why?
There was a reason. Bohemian as was the artist during the last decade of his life, he did not always haunt low cafés and drink absinthe. His beginnings were as romantic as a page of Balzac. He was born a gentleman a la main gauche. His father was the doctor and private secretary of Lady Stanhope. Charles Lewis Meryon was an English physician, who, falling in love with a ballet dancer at the Opéra, Pierre Narcisse Chaspoux, persuaded her that it would be less selfish on her part if she would not bind him to her legally. November 23, 1821, a sickly, nervous, and wizened son was born to the pair and baptised with his father’s name, who, being an alien, generously conceded that much. There his interest ceased. On the mother fell the burden of the boy’s education. At five he was sent to school at Passy and later went to the south of France. In 1837 he entered the Brest naval school, and 1839 saw him going on his maiden voyage. This first trip was marred by the black sorrow that fell upon him when informed of his illegitimate birth. “I was mad from the time I was told of my birth,” he wrote, and until madness supervened he suffered from a “wounded imagination.” He was morbid, shy, and irritable, and his energy the explosive energy of this frail youth was amazing; because he had been refused the use of a ship boat he wasted three months digging out a canoe from a log of wood. Like Paul Gauguin, he saw many countries, and his eyes were trained to form, though not colour – he suffered from Daltonism for when he began to paint he discovered he was totally colour-blind. The visible world for him existed as a contrapuntal net-work of lines, silhouettes, contours, or heavy dark masses. When a sailor he sketched. Meryon tells of the drawing of a little fungus he found in Akaroa. “Distorted in form and pinched and puny from its birth, I could not but pity it; it seemed to me so entirely typical of the inclemency and at the same time of the whimsicality of an incomplete and sickly creation that I could not deny it a place in my souvenirs de voyage, and so I drew it carefully.” This bit of fungus was to him a symbol of his own gnarled existence.
Tiring of ship life, he finally decided to study art. He had seen New Zealand, Australia, Italy, New Caledonia, and if his splendid plate No. 22 in M. Burty’s list is evidence, he must have visited San Francisco. Baudelaire, in L’Art Romantique, speaks of this perspective of San Francisco as being Meryon’s most masterly design. In 1846 he quit seafaring. He was in mediocre health, and though from a cadet he had attained the rank of lieutenant it was doubtful if he would ever rise higher. His mother had left him four thousand dollars, so he went over to the Latin Quarter and began to study painting. That he was unfitted for, and meeting Eugène Bléry he became interested in etching. A Dutch seventeenth-century etcher and draughtsman, Reiner Zeeman by name, attracted him. He copied, too, Ducereau and Nicolle. “An etching by the latter of a riverside view through the arch of a bridge is like a link between Meryon and Piranesi,” says D. S. MacColl. Meryon also studied under the tuition of a painter named Phelippes. He went to Belgium in 1856 on the invitation of the Duc d’Aremberg, and in 1858 he was sent to Charenton suffering from melancholy and delusions. He left in a year and returned to Paris and work; but, as Baudelaire wrote, a cruel demon had touched the brain of the artist. A mystic delirium set in. He ceased to etch, and evidently suffered from the persecution madness. In every corner he believed conspiracies were hatching. He often disappeared, often changed his abode. Sometimes he would appear dressed gorgeously at a boulevard café in company with brilliant birds of prey; then he would be seen slinking through mean streets in meaner rags. There are episodes in his life that recall the career of another man of genius, Gerard de Nerval, poet, noctambulist, suicide. It is known that Meryon destroyed his finest plates, but not in a mad fit. Baudelaire says that the artist, who was a perfectionist, did not wish to see his work suffer from rebiting, so he quite sensibly sawed up the plates into tiny strips. That he was suspicious of his fellow-etchers is illustrated in the story told by Sir Seymour Haden, who bought several of his etchings from him at a fair price. Two miles away from the atelier the Englishman was over-taken by Meryon. He asked for the proofs he had sold, “as they were of a nature to compromise him”; besides, from what he knew of Haden’s etchings he was determined that his proofs should not go to England. Sir Seymour at once returned the etchings. Now, whether Meryon’s words were meant as a compliment or the reverse is doubtful. He was half crazy, but he may have seen through a hole in the millstone.
Frederick Keppel once met in Paris an old printer named Beillet who did work for Meryon. He could not always pay for the printing of his celebrated Abside de Notre Dame, a masterpiece, as he hadn’t the necessary ten cents. “I never got my money!” exclaimed the thrifty printer. Enormous endurance, enormous vanity, diseased pride, outraged human sentiment, hatred of the Second Empire because of the particular clause in the old Napoleonic code relating to the research of paternity; an irregular life, possibly drugs, certainly alcoholism, repeated rejections by the academic authorities, critics, and dealers of his work these and a feeble constitution sent the unfortunate back to Charenton, where he died February 14, 1868. Baudelaire, his critical dis coverer, had only preceded him to a lunatic’s grave six months earlier. Inasmuch as there is a certain family likeness among men of genius with disordered minds and instincts, several comparisons might be made between Meryon and Baudelaire. Both were great artists and both were born with flawed, neurotic systems. Dissipation and misery followed as a matter of course,
Charles Meryon was, nevertheless, a sane and a magnificent etcher. He executed about a hundred plates, according to Burty. He did not avoid portraiture, and to live he sometimes manufactured pot-boilers for the trade. To his supreme vision was joined a miraculous surety of touch. Baudelaire was right those plates, the Paris set, so dramatic and truthful in particulars, could have been sold if Meryon, with his wolfish visage, his fierce, haggard eyes, his gruff manner, had not offered them in person. He looked like a vagabond very often and too often acted like a brigand.
The Salon juries were prejudiced against his work because of his legend. Verlaine over again! The etchings were classic when they were born. We wonder they did not appeal immediately. Today, if you are lucky enough to come across one, you are asked a staggering price. They sold for a song when they did sell during the lifetime of the artist. Louis Napoleon and Baron Haussmann destroyed picturesque Paris to the consternation of Meryon, who to the eye of an archaeologist united the soul of an artist. He loved old Paris. We can evoke it today, thanks to these etchings, just as the Paris of 1848 is forever etched in the pages of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale
But there is hallucination in these etchings, beginning with Le Stryge, and its demoniac leer, “insatiable vampire, l’eternelle luxure.” That gallery of Notre Dame, with Wotan’s ravens flying through the slim pillars from a dream city bathed in sinister light, is not the only striking conception of the poet-etcher. The grip of reality is shown in such plates as Tourelle, Rue de la Timm) derie, and La Pompe, Notre Dame. Here are hallucinations translated into the actual terms of art, suggesting, nevertheless, a solidity, a sharpness of definition, withal a sense of fluctuating sky, air, clouds that make you realise the justesse of Berenson’s phrase tactile values. With Meryon the tactile perception was a sixth sense. Clairvoyant of images, he could transcribe the actual with an almost cruel precision. Telescopic eyes his, as MacColl has it, and an imagination that perceived the spectre lurking behind the door, the horror of enclosed spaces, and the mystic fear of shadows– a Poe imagination, romantic, with madness as an accomplice in the horrible game of his life. One is tempted to add that the romantic imagination is always slightly mad. It runs to seed in darkness and despair. The fugitive verse of Meryon is bitter, ironical, defiant; a whiff from an underground prison, where seems to sit in tortured solitude some wretch abandoned by humanity, a stranger even at the gates of hell.
Sir Seymour Haden has told us that Meryon’s method was to make a number of sketches, two or three inches square, of parts of his picture, which he put together and arranged into a harmonious whole. Herkomer says that he “used the burin in finishing his bitten work with marvellous skill. No better combination can be found of the harmonious combination of the two.” Burty declared that “Meryon preserves the characteristic detail of architecture. . . . Without modifying the aspect of the monument he causes it to express its hidden meaning, and gives it a broader significance by associating it with his own thought.” His employment of a dull green paper at times showed his intimate feeling for tonalities. He is, more so than Piranesi, the Rembrandt of architecture. Hamer ton admits that the French etcher was “one of the greatest and most original artists who have appeared in Europe,” and berates the public of the ’6os for not discovering this. Then this writer, copying in an astonishingly wretched manner several of Meryon’s etchings, analysing their defects as he proceeds, asserts that there is false tonality in Le Stryge. “The intense black in the street under the tower of St. Jacques destroys the impression of atmosphere, though at a considerable distance it is as dark as the nearest raven’s wing, which cannot relieve itself against it. This may have been done in order to obtain a certain arrangement of black and white patches,” etc. This was done for the sheer purpose of oppositional effects. Did Hamerton see a fine plate? The shadow is heavy; the street is in demi, not total, obscurity; the values of the flying ravens and the shadow are clearly enunciated. The passage is powerful, even sensational, and in the Romantic, Hugoesque key. Hamerton is wrong. Meryon seldom erred. His was a temperament of steel and fire. The Visions Of MeryonCharles Meryon Online