Musée d'Orsay: Luc-Olivier Merson The Family

Luc-Olivier Merson
The Family

The Family
Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920)
The Family
Oil on canvas laid on plaster
H. 222; W. 295 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski


La Famille [The Family]

In 1900, the architect Georges Chedanne (1861-1940) was appointed to renovate the Watel-Dehaynin family town house in rue de la Faisanderie in Paris' 16th arrondissement. For the decoration of the main staircase, he engaged Merson, a painter decorator famous for his large compositions, particularly those in the new Opéra-Comique (1888), on the ceremonial staircase at the Hôtel de Ville de Paris (1887) and in the rector's office in the new Sorbonne (1898).

When the house was destroyed in 1974, three Merson paintings were given on long- term loan and are today part of the Musée d'Orsay collections. These are Truth, Fortune and The Family. A fourth panel, Hope has disappeared.

On a terrace overlooking a wooded landscape, a man returns to his wife and children after hunting wild boar. The attitude of each family member is intended to express perfect domestic bliss.
The right hand section of the painting is given over to the symbolic. It is dominated by a figure of Virtue, holding a crown of laurels. Seated next to her, two old men look on benevolently at the young family. In his biography of the artist (1929) Adolphe Giraldon spoke of "the happy mix of archaeology and observation, of convention and nature, perfectly blended as only Merson knew how". The Family reflects an idyllic medieval period, very much in vogue in the 19th century, far removed from industrial society and embodying bourgeois values.

The breadth and clarity of the composition, set in front of a tiered background, compares with the works of Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898). However, Merson differs from this illustrious artist in his obsession for drawing and his passion for detail, reminding us that he was also an illustrator of historical works.

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