So many wonderful artists were cast into an abyss and forgotten during the early twentieth century. A hundred years ago today, Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920) died in Paris, by that time only remembered by philatelists for his designs for stamps. Today I can find very few usable images of his paintings, but they reveal his skills at telling visual stories, and in creating great art.
Merson was born in Paris in 1846, and studied first at the École de Dessin, then at the École des Beaux-Arts in the city. He exhibited at the Salon from 1866, and in 1869 won the prestigious Prix de Rome.
The painting which won him the Prix de Rome is The Soldier of Marathon (1869). Pheidippides (or Philippides), seen collapsed on the ground, is the legendary soldier who was said to have run from the scene of the Battle of Marathon to Athens in 490 BCE, to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians. Almost certainly a more modern romantic invention, this story forms the basis of the modern marathon. Plutarch is one source who conflates accounts, claiming that the runner was named Erchius or Eucles instead.
As the prizewinner, Merson spent the next few years in Italy, returning to Paris by 1875.
While he was in Italy, he appears to have concentrated on religious and historical paintings, some of which are almost phantasmagoric in content. The Vision (1872) combines an altered image of the crucifixion with that of a nun in an apparent ecstasy, and an angelic musical trio. I’m sure that there’s a story behind this, although none springs to mind. It’s also strongly suggestive of the much later paintings of Surrealists, particularly some of Salvador Dalí (1904-1989).
It was two years after his return from Italy that Merson completed what I think is his finest narrative painting, based on sketches and studies which he made of the small town of Gubbio, not far from Rome. Around 1206, Gubbio, perched on the lower slopes of the Apennine Mountains in central Italy, was troubled by a predatory wolf. It was winter, and the wolf was driven by hunger to feed not only from local flocks of sheep, but had started to attack people too.
Living in the town at the time was a young man from Assisi, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, known to everyone as Francesco. He seemed to have a way with animals, and when he heard of the rising concerns about the wolf, he decided to go up into the woods and pastures to find it. He had trudged for some distance over the snow-covered hills when he came face to face with the beast.
Francesco made the sign of the cross, and told the wolf to come to him, which it did, as meek as a lamb.
With the wolf lying down at his feet, Francesco admonished it: “Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil. All the people here accuse you and curse you, but Brother Wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.”
He then led the wolf into Gubbio, and surrounded by astonished locals, Francesco made a pact between the townspeople and the animal. As the wolf had been driven by hunger to do evil, the citizens would feed the wolf regularly so that it was no longer hungry. In return, the wolf would no longer attack them or any of their animals. The deal even extended to the local dogs, who would not trouble the wolf again.
As a mark of this agreement, and so that the townspeople could recognise ‘their’ wolf, Francesco blessed it.
I’m sure that you recognised the hero of this brief legend as the future Saint Francis of Assisi, and perhaps the source of the story as the Fioretti or Little Flowers, a compilation of such tales which grew after the saint’s death in 1226. You probably won’t recognise Merson’s wonderful painting of The Wolf of Agubbio (1877) though.
Set in the town’s central piazza, it’s a bitter winter’s day, so cold that the waters of its grand fountain are frozen as they cascade over its stonework. As the townspeople go about their business, there’s a large wolf with a prominent halo standing at the door of the butcher’s shop. Leaning out from that door, the butcher is handing a piece of meat to the wolf.
A young girl smiles open-mouthed as she strokes the wolf’s back. Her mother holds her other hand, as she walks back clutching a loaf of bread and other provisions.
The wolf appears lean but far from starving. Around its neck, worn like a collar, are various metallic charms and coins. A black dog nearby keeps a watchful eye on the wolf, but remains resting on its snow-free patch of ground.
In the details are a menagerie of creatures: five pigeons, a magpie in the entrance to the butcher’s, a donkey, horse, the black dog, and a cat. There are also more than a dozen people, carrying firewood, watching the flying pigeons, and so on. Merson dedicated this superb painting to his friend, collaborator, and former pupil, Adolphe-Paul Giraldon (1855-1933).
Merson was skilled at taking traditional if not hackneyed stories and reinventing them in haunting images. His version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt from 1880 shows the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Jesus at the foot of a sphinx, whose head is turned up to stare at its vast nighttime sky.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Merson was a central figure in the development and popularisation of Art Nouveau. Together with his friend and former pupil Adolphe-Paul Giraldon, he contributed to the monthly magazine L’Estampe moderne, published from 1897-99, each issue of which brought four original Art Nouveau lithographs.
There have been many illustrated editions of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, in its original French, English and other translations. Among them is an edition published in 1889, with engravings based on a series of drawings made by Merson between 1881 (when he exhibited his first painting based on the book) and 1889. Here are three of them.
This shows Esmeralda taking pity on Quasimodo when he had been flogged and put in the pillory, by giving him a drink of water. Naturally she is accompanied by Djali.
Esmeralda and Djali are here seen with Phɶbus, I think.
This is Merson’s treatment of Quasimodo carrying the swooning Esmeralda from her first and abbreviated visit to the gallows up into the sanctuary of the cathedral.
Merson had little regard for the seismic changes taking place in painting around the turn of the century: his painting of Truth from 1901 is full of ornate Art Nouveau decoration. The personification of truth here sits naked as the day she was born, under the Latin inscription for truth, veritas. At the left is an artist with palette and brushes, below a musician and poet with a lyre, and at the right a scientist-philosopher with his globe of the stars.
Look carefully at where Truth is sitting, though, and she is actually on an ornate stone wellhead. The darkness of the top of the well is just visible to each side of her buttocks, and below her feet water dribbles gently from the mouth of a lion, to form a small stream. The winged putto who is holding her left arm is raising her mirror in his left hand. Behind his feet is the large pot on a rope which would be lowered into the well to obtain water. This is a long-standing association, seen most notably in Gérôme’s late works depicting Truth.
One place which you may have visited and seen Merson’s work is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Sacré-Cœur) of Paris in Montmartre. His breathtaking mosaic of Christ in Majesty (c 1890-1910) in its apse is among the largest in the world.
Luc-Olivier Merson did much more, including designing stained glass windows, and from 1900 was responsible for the designs of many postage stamps and banknotes. But I will always associate him with the story of Saint Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio.