Lot 35
  • 35

Hugues Merle

Estimate
250,000 - 350,000 USD
Sold
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Description

  • Hugues Merle
  • Hamlet and Ophelia
  • signed Hugues Merle and dated 1873 (lower left)
  • oil on canvas
  • 64 1/4 by 46 1/4 in.
  • 163.2 by 117.5 cm

Provenance

Goupil & Cie., Paris, no. 8203 (acquired July 1873)
Alexander Turney Stewart, New York (acquired from the above, August, 1873)
Cornelia M. Stewart , New York (widow of the above and sold, her estate, American Art Association, New York, March 23-25, 1887, lot 67)
Knoedler & Co., New York, no. 5687 (acquired at the above sale)
Hazen Stuart Pingree, Detroit, Michigan (acquired from the above, January 1888)
Acquired circa 1978

Exhibited

Brooklyn Art Association, Spring Exhibition, April 27-May 9, 1874, no. 1 (lent by Mrs. Alexander Turney Stewart)

Literature

"Merle's 'Hamlet and Ophelia',” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 28, 1874, p. 2
"The Brooklyn Exhibition," The New York Times, May 3, 1874, p. 7
Edward Strahan, ed., The Art Treasures of America, Philadelphia, [1879-1882], facsimile edition, 1977, vol. I, pp. 24, 46, 52, illustrated following p. 40
George William Sheldon, Artistic Houses: Being a Series of Interior Views of a Number of the Most Beautiful and Celebrated Homes in the United States With A Description of the Art Treasures Contained Therein, New York, 1883, vol. 1, pt. 1, p. 8-9
"Art Sales in America," The Art Journal, London, 1887, vol. 50, p. 295
David H. Wheeler, "Lovers in Shakespeare's Plays," The Chautauquan, Dr. Theodore L. Flood, ed., Meadville, Pennsylvania, 1892, vol. XV, no. 5, p. 561-63, illustrated p. 559 
A Library of the World's Best Literature, Ancient and Modern, New York, 1896, vol. XXXIII, illustrated following p. 13250
Eli R. Sutton, "Hazen S. Pingree," Michigan Law Journal, Detroit, April 1896, vol. V, no. 4, p. 117 
"The Governor's Home: Good Taste Has Guided the Selection of Its Elegant Appointments," The Detroit Free Press, Detroit, July 31, 1898, p. 27
Delphine Gervais de Lanford, "Ophélie in Nineteenth-Century French Painting," The Afterlife of Ophelia, Kaara L. Peterson and Deanne Williams, eds., New York, 2012, p. 177

Catalogue Note

Hugues Merle has long been associated with his friend and possible rival, William Bouguereau. Merle was just two years older than Bouguereau, and their thematic and artistic concerns and meticulous degree of finish begged comparison from critics and collectors alike. Both won accolades at the Salon throughout their career, both were represented first by Paul Durand-Ruel and later Alphonse Goupil, and both of their studios were visited by eager American collectors.  In 1873, Hamlet and Ophelia was quickly acquired by American retail giant Alexander Turney Stewart and on the same day as his purchase of  Bouguereau’s L'agneau nouveau-né (see lot 25). In his Art Treasures of America (1879-82) Edward Strahan recorded fifty-two works by Merle, an artist of “ever-popular and resolutely picturesque” subjects, in American collections, with his Beatrice and Benedick (from Much Ado About Nothing) joining Hamlet and Ophelia in the Stewarts' New York residence, the “two striking scenes, each in dialogue… of large proportions…  both from Shakespeare, and respectively comic and tragic” (Strahan, p. 46).

While Shakespeare’s tragedy had long inspired many works of art, Merle’s composition is one of the rare examples to depict Act III, Scene I’s charged confrontation.  Hamlet, here with furrowed brow and finger pointing toward a church outside the window, famously commands Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery,” both to protect and condemn her, as the corrupt King Claudius and Polonius lurk behind a curtain. (This will soon be the location of Polonius' death, as a crazed Hamlet stabs through the curtain with his sword).  As in many of Merle’s works of the period, he places his figural pairs close to the picture plane, a dramatic technique which did not go unnoticed by contemporary viewers.  When lent by Mrs. Stewart for a Brooklyn exhibition in 1874, a journalist reported “even the most superficial observer can hardly fail to observe… the fierce, nervous energy of [Hamlet’s] character, in marked contrast to the gentleness and purity embodied in the form of Ophelia” ("Merle’s ‘Hamlet and Ophelia',” 1874, p. 2). In an article about the Bard, a late nineteenth century writer used a photograph of the painting to illustrate that there was “just one perfect picture of a pair of Shakespeare’s lovers…. The Hamlet and Ophelia by H. Merle… Seldom has so much emotion found voice in a pictured face as the artist has mirrored in the face of Hamlet; and this storm tossed soul crying out of a human face has its fitting companion in… Ophelia.... at rest in her sorrow” (Wheeler, pp. 561, 562).  Such an impactful composition made it a perfect fit for the elaborate interior decoration of the Stewarts’ New York mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue and 34th Street.  In the 1882 volume of Artistic Houses, the present work was noted hanging in Mrs. Stewart’s reception room, a place “busy for twelve months” with a stream of visitors, a “palatial” space which easily impressed with its “rose-wood cabinets,” “a costly table… covered with a large slab of Mexican onyx,” and the “blue chintz” of upholstery and drapery highlighting the “oil paintings all of them, mostly life-size, practically harmonious in artistic resources and styles, and uniformly pleasing, as the popular appetite counts pleasingness” (Sheldon, p. 8-9). 

Hamlet and Ophelia was part of the landmark sale of the Stewart collection in 1887 and the following year was acquired by Hazen S. Pingree (1840-1901), whose shoe factory, Pingree and Smith, was at the time a company with 700 employees making a half-million pairs of footwear a year and with annual earnings of $1 million.  On a platform of reform (but no political experience), Pingree was elected mayor of Detroit in 1889, extending social welfare, public work programs for the unemployed, and civic development – notably his "potato patch plan” which allowed the underprivileged to use 430 acres of vacant city land to grow food (and earning him the affectionate moniker "Potato Patch Pingree”).  According to the Michigan Art Journal, before Pingree "entered politics, he spent a great deal of money for masterpieces of art” and Hamlet and Ophelia hung together with works by Bouguereau, Théodore Rousseau, Jules Dupré, and others in his elegant home on Woodward Avenue.  Each Sunday he gathered friends and colleagues for debate and, likely, to view his collection as “Mr. Pringree [knew] what good art is” (Sutton, p. 117).  When Pingree was elected Governor of Michigan in 1896, a local journalist returned to his grand residence to write with incredible detail and photograph its interiors proving his “good taste” in creating a home “artistically filled” (Detroit Free Press, 1898, p. 27).

While Pingree is still remembered by his statue standing in Grand Circus Park in Detroit, commending him as “The Idol of the People,” how his collection was dispersed is currently unknown.  Hamlet and Ophelia had been untraced since Pingree’s death in 1901 and known only by its original photograph. Moreover, in its exhibition today, Merle’s masterful composition hangs together with Bouguereau’s L'agneau nouveau-né for the first time since leaving the Stewart collection over 130 years ago, reuniting two titans of late nineteenth century art.
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