Sunday, March 24, 2013


In case you think that I am writing about magic and sorcerers I am afraid that you will be disappointed.  Merlin is the name of a French 19th century artist about whom very little is known.  In fact, his first or last name Merlin is the only name recorded.  A little like the music star of today, Sting.  Merlin’s dates are also not known.  What is known, however, is that he was a landscape artist who worked around Rouen, France and exhibited in the Salons between 1812 and 1824.

Some years ago I went to view a Christie’s auction sale because of a Rembrandt being sold by Steve Wynn, the casino owner and art collector.

All the hype was concentrated on this Rembrandt portrait estimated between 6 and 8 million dollars.   After tense bidding it was finally sold on the telephone for $11,500,000 plus the auction house commission.  We learned later that the picture was bought by Robert Noortman, the late Dutch dealer who is best known for having conceived of the TEFAF art fair which has just ended in Maastricht.  At the TEFAF fair following the sale of the Rembrandt it was front and center in his booth and the Fair organizers made a big fuss in the pre-fair publicity.

All this hype sometimes has the advantage for a buyer who is interested in another painting in the same auction sale.   In this case, I had been taken by this Merlin landscape.  Clearly Christies had also been aware of its quality because they used it as the inside back cover image.

This is one of those cases of a wonderful painting by a little known artist, and as I have said before, I would rather have the best of a not so well known artist than a mediocre picture by a more famous one.   Museum directors, and more so their boards of trustees, often disagree.  Names, Names, Names that is what most care about so it is up to the collector to buy what he or she likes… but all this is worthy of a separate Missive.  It seems that ”my” picture had escaped wide notice since the actual illustration in the catalog entry made it look small and inconsequential.

The Merlin landscape seems to be a very specific location.  The catalog said that the scene was around Rouen but why should it be?   There was nothing to be found on line about the elusive Merlin and the two lexicons that had anything about him had extremely brief entries.  One, however, did give a list of the Salons in which he had exhibited between 1812 and 1824 with a list of the paintings that he had shown.  The fact that the painting is signed and dated “Merlin 1824” is evidence of the probability that it is one of his views of a country house near Rouen’s route de Bapaume listed in the 1824 Salon.

When I had possession of the painting I asked a French collector what he thought and he saw no reason not to believe it was a scene near Rouen and then I followed up with a curator from one of the French Museums and he also thought that it was likely.  In the distance you can see the town on the river but the focus of the painting is a formal garden typical of what one finds in France.  But what is that exotic plant that stands out on the left?  It is an agave and it turns out that in the 19th century many varieties of agave were imported from the New World and collected in Europe.  Since Rouen was a port they were able to import plants and vegetation from 4 other continents and already in the 18th century the city established a botanical garden.

There is so much else to see in the painting. Note the woman wearing the straw hat who seems to be one of the gardening staff and may be clipping a specimen from a bush to offer to her employer’s family approaching along the path.  Also, the unusual construction of the tall building on the left with openings under the pitched roof suggests a specialized conservatory structure. What is more difficult to see in the illustration are the tiny figures of gardeners in the distance.  Come by the gallery to see for yourself.

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