Hugues Merle (French, 1823-1881)
Hugues Merle (French, 1823-1881)


Hugues Merle (French, 1823-1881)
signed 'HUGUES MERLE.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
51¼ x 38½ in. (130.1 x 97.8 cm.)
with Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Paris.
William H. Stewart (1820-1897), Paris.
with Goupil et Cie., acquired from the above, 14 November 1871.
with M. Knoedler & Co., New York, acquired from the above, 8 March 1872.
Herbert C. Pell, possibly acquired directly from the above circa 1880.
Rep. Herbert C. Pell Jr. (1884-1961), his son.
Sen. Claiborne Pell (1918-2009), his son, 1961.
By descent to the present owner.

Paris, Salon, 1861, no. 2212.

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Lot Essay

Hugues Merle received his artistic education in the studio of Leon Cogniet (1794-1880) and first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1847. He exhibited there regularly until 1880. He was twice awarded the second class medal in 1861 and 1863 and he was made a Chevalier de legion d’honneur in 1866. Merle was often compared by his contemporaries to the most famous Academic artist of the time, William Adolphe Bouguereau, and it was written at the time that Merle ‘became a considerable rival to Bouguereau in subject and treatment’ (C. H. Stranahan, A History of French Painting from its Earliest to its Latest Practice, New York, 1917, p. 398). Like Bouguereau, Merle was extremely popular among American collectors of the last quarter of the 19th century and canvases by the artist graced the collections of Robert Sterling Clark and Cornelis Vanderbilt. Merle and Bouguereau knew one another well and for a time were represented by the same gallery, Durand-Ruel, in Paris. Born only two years apart, the two artists were rivals and competed for commissions and recognition.
Bathsebée was Merle’s Salon entry of 1861 and received special mention in Théophile Gautier’s review of the exhibition. He describes the young woman just moments after her bath: ‘la femme d’Urie, les genoux chachés par une draperie bleue, déroule sa longue et lourde chevelure blonde; elle se croit seule, et, souriant de sa beauté, elle prolonge avec une naïve coquetterie et un innocent abandon les apprêts du bain; elle est vraiment ‘fort belle à voire’ comme dit l’Ecriture... ' (T. Gautier, Abécédaire du Salon de 1861, p. 282-283).
Bathsebée is a superb example of Merle’s complete mastery of the Academic technique. Executed on a large scale, this work was painted by the artist at the height of his powers. Precise draughtsmanship and a close study and complete understanding of human anatomy were considered the foundation of the Academic education, and an artist’s reputation and career were predicated on his ability to accurately and naturally depict the human form and expression. Choices of subject matter were also important, and in Bathsebée Merle moves away from his usual subject matter of mothers and children and has taken on a subject more monumental and serious. His depiction of Bathsebée just as she emerges from her bath, with droplets of water still clinging to her golden hair, is a tour-de-force of technique and expression. The young woman stretches languorously, completely unaware of King David leering over a parapet in the left background. The king is in the shadows, the somber atmosphere a hint of the dark consequences to come from this chance glimpse of the beautiful young woman.
Merle is a master of color and contrast, and the whiteness of Bathsebée's skin is offset by the teal blue of the drapery spread across her knees and the red fabric hanging on the tree beside her. Merle uses the same color contrast in his 1874 work, Susanna at her Bath (fig.1). Both paintings depict Biblical women of virtue who are appreciated and coveted from afar, caught at a moment of vulnerability. Both women are crowned with golden tresses painted with multiple layers of fine glazes. Droplets of water fall from Bathsebée’s thick curls. Merle’s handling and separation of the textures of female flesh, satin drapery and the delicacy of Bathsebée’s hands and face place him squarely in the company of Bouguereau and Munier at the forefront of the proponents of the Academic tradition at the end of the 19th Century.
Bathsebée boasts a distinguished provenance. From Merle’s studio it went to his Paris dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who sold it to William H. Stewart, one of the most powerful American expatriate collectors in Paris during the 19th century. From there it was acquired by Goupil et Cie., who sold the work to M. Knoedler and Co. in New York, where Pell family tradition states that it was purchased by Herbert Claiborne Pell in the 1880s. It descended through the family and hung at Oakview, the family mansion on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island which is currently the home of the Newport Preservation Society.

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