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The Visions Of Meryon
( Originally Published 1913 )
Within one week, to acquire Rembrandt's Prodigal Son and Meryon's Morgue, for no more than fifteen shillings each, is no slight triumph of hunting. The joy of the find, the skill of verifying, to a man of slender purse the wealth of possession, the delight of mounting and framing the etchings, the beauty of them on the wall-upon my word, I pity non-collectors, for what they totally miss.
The fame of Rembrandt etchings stands unequalled and secure; in the " A B C About Collecting " I have written upon the spirit and style of them. Now Meryon's etchings are coming into their glory, though it is little more than half a century since Charles Meryon did his great work. Born at Paris he was, but the son of an Englishman. He entered the Navy first, but late in life essayed art ; he failed as a painter, as an etcher he supremely succeeded; but he lived in misery, and died insane. His most famous etching is the Abside ; he was glad to sell a print from that plate for a franc and a half. The other day, one of these fifteenpenny prints was sold for £600-six hundred Pounds-the price of a Rembrandt etching of first rank.
A Hint to Book-Hunters.-Often I balance between a collector's secrecy and a writer's duty to tell what he knows. I do so a moment now. But-well, here is the hint ; look out for the second volume of the Fine Arts Quarterly Review, published London, 1864. I bought three volumes of that review, bound in red morocco tooled, for three half-crowns, and in the second volume I found a Meryon etching. It was the Rue des Toiles, the best of the series on Bourges, that delightful old city in the centre of France ; and this etching, inserted, on proper paper, was to illustrate an article by Hamerton, himself an etcher, and one of the few Englishmen who knew interior France well. In a footnote, Hamerton said: " Even if there had been much choice I should have selected this, as being the only one of an important series which escaped destruction. Before Meryon destroyed his plates he had given this one to a friend of his, from whom I procured it. This etching is, therefore, interesting, as the one thing saved from a sacrifice which lovers of art will ever lament."
It is the fact that in a fit of dejection Meryon destroyed his etched plates. That, of course, prevented additional prints being taken from them to meet the demand which has grown and grown. Meryon etchings are therefore rare birds, and costly. The Rue des Toiles will cost you several guineas unless you can buy it in the book named above.
The Paris Series.-But it is the twelve " Eaux Fortes sur Paris " which made the artist's fame. They are views sur Paris, not " of " Paris, you will observe, and they represent Meryon's visions of the city and its interfusion of tragic life. No moderate sum can now buy a first or even a second " state " of one of this series. A first " state " is a print of the first edition ; a second " state " is a print of the second edition after some alteration had been made in the plate ; the later the " state " the less vivid and rich the print, as a rule, because the plate has" worn." Before the twelve views of Paris were printed off in their third state, Meryon numbered them, on the plates, at the top right-hand corner, in the following order: The Stryge, the Petit Pont, the Arche du Pont, the Galerie, the Tour, the Tourelle, the St. Etienne, the Pompe, the Pont Neuf, the Pont au Change, the Morgue, and last, but perhaps best, the Abside de Notre-Dame.
Then there were also eleven minor views-among them the tragic Rue des Mauvais Garcons (Baudelaire's favourite), showing the dark alley leading to a house of ill-fame.
The Abside has gone to £600, I have said. A fine second state Morgue has sold for £86; ; a less fine impression is on sale for £35. A third state Morgue may, perhaps, begot for £10, but not for long. Every-state" and every impression of Meryon's great etchings will rise in the market. Victor Hugo said-how well Meryon could have illustrated Hugo's "Hunchback "!-Victor Hugo said of these etchings : "They are visions!" That is the point; Meryon did not see the Paris of 1850-1854 in the light of common day. The tragic melancholy of his own life passed into his seeing. Hamerton wrote: " He is gifted with the two grand gifts--eyes keen to see and imagination mighty to transform," and, writing in 1864, while Meryon still lived, and his best work was but ten years old, Hamerton said: " I confidently predict that his name will live and endure as one of the immortal aquafortists." That prophecy has come true already.
Shams. - Small and irresponsible print-dealers will offer you " Meryons " at thirty or thirty-five shillings, but these are shams, except for the minor works. Somebody has etched new plates, in attempted facsimile; but they could not facsimile the touch of genius, and the real plates were melted up long ago.