Mrs. Stuart Merrill A Chalk Portrait by Jean Delville
By Joseph Parish
During my art class days I elected to develop the week’s assignment upon the Belgian symbolist style painter Jean Delville. Not too many people are familiar with this artist’s fine work but when introduced to his labors they immediately appreciate his efforts. Delville was a bit of a controversial individual in his days since he was heavily involved in studies revolving around spiritualism and the occult.
This Belgian painter commenced his art career at the early age of twelve and was destined to embark upon actual professional exhibits by the time he reached the age of twenty. It was during this time frame in which he became interested in various esoteric topics. It was likely these early studies involving the occult subjects which left a marked influence upon his later paintings.
Not only was Jean Delville a talented painter but he was also a writer of sorts. He would often comment about his philosophies of life in his prose but closely guarded any remarks about his paintings. This lack of conversation relating to his canvas work perpetuated an air of secrecy concerning the paintings themselves. No one really knew why, where or when about one of his works of art and as a result rumors frequently made their rounds.
His son Oliver relates to us how his father was determined to deliver his philosophies of life to the rest of the world by way of his paintings and his associated writings. During his later years he attempted to supplement his meager income by providing private art instruction with minor results. His son to this day looks to his father as a man of courage with an undying sense of perseverance.
Although Delville attempted to achieve recognition in his field he essentially failed his goal. By the mid 50’s he was in essence unknown within the art community and only after his death several years later was there a revival of interest generated in his work.
From the chalk drawing of Mrs. Stuart Merrill’s portrait up to Satin’s Treasures we find a touch of the bizarre and the abnormal which generates an aura of mystery for those who view them. My specific selection was extremely difficult, as I admire the majority of his works of art. In one work of art we have the portrait of Mrs. Stuart Merrill who is caught up in her trance like state with her eyes focused upward towards the heavens. We glaze intently upon her orange shaded hair as it combines gracefully with the background light of her radiant aura. Did Delville intend for the viewer to interpret these hot colors surrounding the medium’s head as a comparison to mankind’s earthly desires of fiery passion and ultimate sensuality? Was he personally a victim of this passion of which we speak? I believe there are firm possibilities of that.
To enter the mind of the artist would be a difficult task at best however we see the model boldly displaying the book with a triangle on it indicating the creator’s acceptance of the beliefs in Hermeticism as well as other occult values.
Watching intently at the drawing we get the impression that Mrs. Merrill appears to be a flogging a potential initiation invitation to the public. We see her resting the book beneath her chin and supporting it with her hands in order to provide a magical appeal to the viewer. It certainly appears to be an open invitation for all to view her “Book of Shadows”.
Viewers of this drawing generally have mixed reactions ranging from that of eerie and mystical feelings all the way to that of sentiments that they have just observed a magical vision. Often this drawing has been referred to as the “Mona Lisa of 1890”. If you were to look closely at the portrait you may actually feel the resemblance of the strange and secretive smile often seem in the Mona Lisa.
Information is scarce on Mrs. Merrill and what little we can gather originates from the artists son Oliver. According to the younger Delville, Stuart Merrill a poet lived near to the Delville’s residence. The older Delville was fascinated by the beauty displayed of the poet’s wife and as such depicted her as a character bestowed with mediumistic traits. It is even suggested that his drawing “Medusa” was also a portrayal of Mrs. Merrill. Unfortunately, little more is actually known about this lovely lady as her life appears to be forgotten in the pages of time. However we are not too likely to forget her image as long as Delville’s unique chalk portrait remains.
An interesting thought is that the picture was never owned by the Merrill family but rather remained in the hands of Delville and his descendants until the late 1960s. It was later acquired by the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts. Being of an imaginative nature I would venture to say that perhaps Stuart Merrill never was aware that the painting existed.
When I view this work of art I am immediately drawn to the mysterious, hidden, innocent beauty radiating from the lady in the portrait. The dull, shadowy background lines lend definition to those colors and lines within the foreground face. The weak background shades provide an avenue for our imagination to romp and permits us to speculate what strange effects may be lurking behind the ladies external image. The warm mixed colors compliment the receding but natural buoyancy displayed of the drawing. The composition weighs well with the soft texture afforded the over-all picture.
To accurate judge this art work would not be a difficult or laborious task, for I find it extremely appealing. From experience I know chalk drawings are not a simple accomplishment in the least. It takes talent and inborn skills to complete a chalk project. I feel the artist was trying to not merely portray a lovely lady in his work but attempting to make a type of poster to promote his beliefs in the occult. I feel in this effort he succeeded. If given the opportunity to purchase and own a work of this quality, I would not hesitate in the least. It is well composed and created.
Copyright @2011 Joseph Parish