Charged with emotion, The Forgotten depicts maternal affection and a mother's instinct to protect her children in the face of insurmountable hardship and unfortunate circumstances. Standing outside what appears to be an iron gate to a church yard, the young mother seems to be praying for relief, her eyes turned longingly upwards. The poor and outcast, who existed on the margins of society far removed from the rapid modernization and industrialization of cities, fascinated Realist painters in nineteenth century France. The rebuilding of Paris under Haussmann led to the uprooting and displacement of the working classes who could not afford skyrocketing rents. Poor women were hit the hardest by these urban changes, and by the 1850s, images of abandoned, single mothers and their children became prevalent on the art market. Artists ranging from Paul Delaroche to Léon-Jean-Basile Perrault to Alfred Stevens explored this subject. Bourgeois patrons were drawn to the emotions that were inspired by these compositions.
Merle returned to this subject on more than one occasion, as did Bouguereau, whose Indigent Family (1865, City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, fig. 1) was exhibited at the Salon in 1865. Both artists influenced each other and similarly drew upon the visual tropes of Madonna and child images painted during the Renaissance. While the technique in the present lot was certainly influenced by Merle's academic training, the psychological realism and drama of the mother's plight conveys his singular talents and sets him apart from his contemporaries.
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