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Dr Richard Taws
University College London
Research Fellowship

Charles Meryon’s graphic risk

Richard Taws reappraises the work of French printmaker Charles Meryon, focusing on work that reveals his involvement in the nineteenth-century Francosphere, in particular projects in the South Pacific and California

Etching of view over San Francisco in 1885
Charles Meryon, San Francisco, 1855-56, etching on steel, 31 x 101.5cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund 1917. Artwork in the Public Domain.

Printmaker Charles Meryon is best-known for his Eaux-fortes sur Paris, a remarkable series of neo-Gothic visions of the capital he made between 1850 and 1854, shortly before he was committed for the first time to the Charenton asylum, where he died in 1868. Comprising, in the words of Walter Benjamin, ‘the death mask of old Paris’, Meryon’s hallucinatory images of a quasi-medieval city have been understood as allegories for urban modernity’s dialectical character.

Yet despite his close association with the metropolis, Meryon’s visual world was not limited to Paris. Before he became an artist, Meryon was a sailor, joining a speculative attempt to establish a French colony in New Zealand. He made many images of the flora and fauna of the South Pacific, and albatrosses and indigenous craft could be found in the skies and waterways of his Paris prints, heightening what came to be seen as their proto-Surreal quality. 

At the peak of his career, in 1855, Meryon designed share certificates for a projected Franco-Californian property development company, and its owners commissioned from him a panorama of San Francisco. In the years following the 1848 Revolution, thousands of French workers, known as ‘argonauts’, had emigrated to California to seek their fortune. Gold fever intensified in 1850 with the Lottery of the Golden Ingots, a national competition linked to gold rush profits. Meryon’s famous etchings of Paris were made against the backdrop of the Lottery and its fraught aftermath. It is, I propose, significant that Meryon’s investment in a phantasmatic and historically dynamic image of the city in transformation evolved while gold mania gripped Paris. 

Focusing on Meryon’s connections to construction and extractive schemes, colonialism, lotteries, and mass emigration, my project reorients analysis of his work away from Paris towards transnational networks of people and things – tracing relationships between his practice and the cultures, histories, and ecologies of the nineteenth-century Francosphere. Examining Meryon’s work in relation to images and objects in diverse media, from panoramic photographs to seabird feathers, from advertising to tattoos, I suggest that the distinctive graphic intensity and experimentation of his printmaking was intertwined with the risk economies in which he participated. Charles Meryon was alert to the ecological impact of the capital projects he documented – making prints representing plants, fungi, animals, and the landscapes that contained them – many of which were becoming increasingly disfigured by European intervention and exploitation for resources. Seen this way, his work – and with it our image of nineteenth-century Paris – can be understood as marked indelibly by French mercantile travel, colonial commerce and their consequences nearby and far away.

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