Atelier · March 23, 2007

Friday in the atelier: “Tristan and Isolde” by Huges Merle

When Sir Thomas Malory wrote about King Author and his knights of the round table in “Le Morte d’Arthur” in the mid 15th century, he based much of the love triangle between King Author, Lancelot, and Guinevere on the story of Tristan and Isolde. There are many different versions of the romantic tragedy between Tristan and Isolde; and the earliest versions are 12th century Welsh and Irish.

The story of Tristan and Isolde goes something like this, King Mark of Cornwall sends Tristan to Ireland to bring back the princess Isolde to be King Mark’s new bride. While returning to Cornwall on King Mark’s ship, Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion and fall desperately in love. Upon return to Cornwall, Isolde marries King Mark, and continues to have an affair with Tristan. The relationship between Tristan and Isolde is stormy, and the relationship between all in the love triangle is complex. King Mark loves and trusts Tristan as he would a son and close friend, and he is deeply in love with Isolde; whereas she loves and respects King Mark as a father-figure, and is dutiful to him. Tristan also loves and respects King Mark as an honorable and close friend.

Like many medieval romance stories, the story of Tristan and Isolde is retold in many different ways, and portrays Tristan in several different fashions. Richard Wagner later retold the story in the opera, “Tristan und Isolde”, which was first preformed in Germany in 1865. It played in opera houses around the world, and would certainly have played in France to be seen by the artist Hugues Merle.

Hugues Merle, (1823-1881) painted “Tristan and Isolde” sometime before 1870.

Merle was a student of Léon Cogniet; and he was a friend and rival to William Bouguereau. He was patronized by the duc de Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III. His paintings were portraits, scenes from literature and history, and sentimental contemporary subjects. He was very successful in his lifetime and was popular with wealthy collectors.

Many of his subjects included the less fortunate, especially working women; his painting, “A Beggar Woman” is an excellent example. The ties between Merle and Bouguereau were very deep; Bouguereau on the advice of a mutual friend started using Merle’s very successful theme of familial love to increase his own success. Later they worked for the art dealer Goupil, of Goupil and Cie, and did very well selling their works through him. During this time Merle started teaching painting to Bouguereau’s wife, Elizabeth Gardner.

Although Merle didn’t attract much attention from more serious art critics, he was a favorite of the public in general, and of the French government, who made him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor at the age of 43.

There are not very many of Merle’s works easily available online. The Art Renewal Center has several of course – but it is difficult to find many others without being an official art dealer. From what I have found, those works of Merle which are available for purchase seem to be selling at what I consider ridiculously low prices, prices that even I myself might afford! That’s very tempting to me – what do I need with a new car? My old beaten-up Saturn still works.

The other two portraits that I show here are, “A Portrait of a Woman“, and “Falling Leaves”. As always, these are cropped details, you may click on the links to see a better portrait. In the case of “Falling Leaves”, the portrait is still not the full portrait – I haven’t found a satisfactory full portrait of “Falling Leaves” on the Internet.

As to why I chose Tristan and Isolde to show today, well somehow over two years ago this painting found it’s way onto my hard-drive, and it had no identity to it at all. I didn’t know the painting’s name, nor the artist’s. I seriously thought it was from Bouguereau, but couldn’t find it in his works. It was a nagging mystery that keep pushing me. I finally found out who painted it, and found his other great works, only 2 weeks ago. My mystery was solved – so of course I had to share it!