L’étrange Monsieur Merson

The strange Monsieur Merson

Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 10 December 2008 to 22 March 2009

1. Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920)
The Annunciation, 1908
Oil on canvas- 55 x 46.5 cm
Cherbourg, Musée d’Art Thomas-Henry
Photo : Musée Thomas-Henry / Giraudon

There is no doubt that Luc-Olivier Merson is strange indeed. This brave and successful retrospective thoroughly proves it. It also goes to show once again that the adjectives applied to some of the painting from the second half of the 19th century describe in only a very poor way an extremely complex reality. Academic ? “Pompier” ? These terms are not enough to describe Merson’s art. After all, the artist’s tendency, from the very beginning, to choose rare subjects and an innovative iconography drawn at times directly from his imagination are anything but academic. Nor can one qualify as “pompier” his representations of the life of the Virgin, which seem to take place in the countryside in Britanny (ill. 1).

This exhibition, which we regret will not have at least a second venue, is presented in a remarkable fashion with a chronological staging which does not overlook any of the most important compositions.
Merson appeared as an original figure very early on, to the point of seeming troubling. Although his Prix de Rome of 1869 unsurprisingly reproduces the subject assigned to him, there is evidence in a canvas painted a year earlier, Apollo Exterminator (Castres, Musée Goya), of the painter’s attempts to treat unusual subjects. This androgynous and decadent Apollo, eying the Greeks whom he has struck with the plague and as they burn the bodies on pyres, with a Machiavellian look, arouses a definite malaise in the viewer.

2. Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920)
Vision, Legend of the 14th Century, 1872
Oil on canvas - 290 x 344 cm
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Photo : RMN / Philipp Bernard

3. Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920)
Saint Louis Between the Church and
Saint Thomas Aquinas

Oil on canvas - 36 x 26 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée d’Orsay / RMN

The work he sends back from Rome is just as odd. The subjects are taken from old legends not illustrated elsewhere, such as the Saint Edmond, King of England, Martyr (Troyes, Musée des Beaux-Arts) or the iconography is entirely made up as in Vision, Legend of the 14th century (ill. 2) ; the artist enjoys throwing people off.
This last painting might seem very kitsch. But would the same be true if the painter were English ? The close parallel with Pre-Raphaelite inspiration (pointed out here by the curators) is immediately obvious. Merson is looking to the art of the period he is supposed to be representing, but in a modern manner without being a pastiche. The very beautiful landscape and the refined colouring should encourage a renewed appraisal of a hasty perception. Let us not forget that this is after all a dream, thus justifying the atmosphere.

4. Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920)
Resting During the Flight Into Egypt
Oil on canvas - 71.8 x 123.3 cm
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Photo : All rights reseved

Merson was to pursue this search for originality throughout his career. Although he was a great religious painter, his works are not found in churches, except for a very beautiful Saint Louis between the Church and Saint Thomas Aquinas in Paris in the church dedicated to the English saint, with the study held at the Musée d’Orsay (ill. 3). His subjects are taken from the apocryphal gospels or the Golden Legend, presented in small or medium sized formats which have nothing to do with the large altarpieces generally found. More than once he treated the legend of Saint Francis of Assissi ; he also painted that of Saint Isidore, who prays while an angel takes his place working in the fields. Above all, he is the creator of an iconography for Resting during the Flight into Egypt (ill. 4) uniquely poetic and rarely equaled. This painting was so successful that the artist made several versions of it, two of which are displayed in the exhibition. The Virgin is sleeping with the child in her arms, curled up against the sphinx, bathed in a heavenly light, while Joseph is lying on the ground next to the dying fire and the grazing donkey. Definitely inspired by this subject, he treated the same theme in two other paintings which are lost but known through engravings, in which the holy family is resting near a temple this time, under the watchful eye of the Egyptian gods etched on the wall. The artist gave this work two different titles, both equally evocative : In the Shade of Isis and The Virgin Mothers, renewed proof of his systematic determination to distance himself from tradition.

5. Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920)
Study for the Lighting, décor
for the Gala Staircase
at the Hotel de Ville

Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts
de Rennes / Patrick Merret

6. Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920)
The Virgin and the Universal Church followed by the Five continents
Apse at the Sacre Cœur
Photo : COARC / Roger-Viollet

Merson is above all a painter of History. He made almost no portraits outside of his circle of friends or family. He was also a great decorator although several of the projects he started remained unfinished or were completed by his students. Unlike his friend Joseph Blanc [1], he did not got a commission for a wall at the Pantheon although the government ordered a cartoon from him for a tapestry representing Saint Michael Slaying the Dragon meant to decorate a chapel in the building [2]. On the other hand, he contributed to several other projects under the Third Republic : the Hotel de Ville (ill. 5), the Sorbonne, the Opera Comique and also obtained commissions abroad. Finally, we should point out that he is the author of the cartoons for the mosaics which ornate the apse at Sacre Coeur (ill. 6), a monument which is so often belittled that one forgets to enter.

As of 1880, Merson, who had a long list of private clients, no longer really exhibited at the Salon. There are several compositions in the exhibition from the Hotel Vatel-Dehaynin (ill. 7), today held at the Musée d’Orsay after being saved in a heroic manner as recounted in the catalogue with his usual wit by Jacques Foucart who literally grabbed the ensemble from the demolition crew in 1974.

7. Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920)
The Family, 1901
Decor from the Hôtel Vatel-Dehaynin
Oil on canvas maroufled on plaster - 222 x 295 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée d’Orsay / RMN

We cannot leave out mention of Merson’s other talents : cartoons for stained-glass windows (several are on display in the exhibition) and book illustrations. He prepared the latter with very elaborate gouache watercolours. The artist was in fact an excellent and prolific draughtsman (ill. 8). His drawings come up for auction regularly and are found in major collections. Following tradition, he prepared his paintings very carefully, first drawing the nude figures, then the draped ones, before executing overall studies. There are several examples shown in Rennes.

8. Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920)
Study of a drapery for the Anthem, 1898
Roof for the Staircase at the Opéra Comique
Chalk and pencil - 98 x 68.5 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay, conservé au département
d’arts graphiques du Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN / Gérard Blot

The work which accompanies the exhibition is not a catalogue as it does not contain any entries. This is in fact a biography of Luc-Olivier Merson, taken from the dissertation in progress by Anne-Blanche Stévenin and enriched with an essay by Pierre Vaisse on painted décors on public buildings (a bit redundant given the chapter following it) and an innovative study on Merson and the United States by Emily Beeny. These texts are of excellent quality, well written, and reveal a fine depth of analysis. Unfortunately, the book suffers from several drawbacks : the colours in certain illustrations are too loud, and many of these, on the edge of the page, are systematically cut off either on the left or right, thus mutilating works often reproduced for only the first time, whereas still others find themselves on a double page with the binding making it impossible to view the central area. The references between the images and the text are practically incomprehensible making it difficult to go back and forth, all the more so as there are no less than three lists included in the appendix : the works exhibited, without numbers, those which are illustrated but not displayed and, finally, a list of reproductions of works displayed ! This is all very complicated and serves no useful purpose.
We regret that the only recent monograph – which probably will remain so for a long time – on the artist has not been more carefully prepared. There is no index and the bibliography seems to reveal that important and recent works were not included. To give just one example : The Return of the Prodigal Son, catalogue of a 1996 exhibition in Clermont-Ferrand where the Riom cartoon is reproduced ; the exhibition Luc-Olivier Merson at the Hahn gallery with a catalogue available on line, that of the Seligmann donation at the Musée Carnavalet, In Marcel Proust’s Time… As a result, for many of the works, neither the provenances, nor art historians’ contributions to the entries are quoted.
There are also some slips here and there. Illustration 51, a Study for the Lighting, décor for the Gala Staircase at the Hotel de Ville is not “ unknown whereabouts” because this drawing is held in the Louis-Antoine Prat collection and was exhibited at the Louvre a few years ago. We would be interested in knowing if the stained-glass windows at the chateau des Pins in the Loir-et-Cher region still exist, if the mosaics for Mexico were executed (and if so, if they are still there) ; at last, and this is probably due to a lack of coordination between the various authors, on p. 213 we read that there is no longer any trace of the stained-glass windows representing Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci formerly in a building in New York destroyed in 1912 but they do not point out that these windows are known in several versions including those deposited by the FNAC at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Troyes…presented in the exhibition and reproduced on p. 195 of the catalogue.

Our reservations concerning this work do not make it any less valuable for a further knowledge of the artist. Nor should they keep our readers from traveling to Rennes as soon as possible in order to discover one of the best art exhibitions available at the moment.

Commissariat général : Francis Ribemont ; Commissariat scientifique : Anne-Blanche Stévenin.

local/cache-vignettes/L115xH150/Couverture_Merson-6042a.jpgCollective work, L’étrange Monsieur Merson, Editions Lieux Dits, 2008, 288 p., 30 €. ISBN : 2-914528-61-2. Buy this catalogue

Visitor Information : Musée des Beaux-Arts, 20, quai Emile Zola, 35000 Rennes. Phone : + 33 (0)2 23 62 17 45. Open daily except Monday from 10.00 - 12.00 and 14.00 -18.00, Tuesday from 10.00 - 18.00. Rates : 3,30 € et 1,75 € (reducted).

Version française

Didier Rykner, mardi 24 février 2009


[1] A book appeared a few months ago on this painter ; we shall review it shortly.

[2] This is held today at the Mobilier National (and displayed at the exhibition), whereas the cartoon is at the museum in Riom.

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