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Art Through Time: A Global View

Dreams and Visions Art: Le Pont-au-Change (The Exchange Bridge, Paris)

» Charles Méryon (French, 1821–1868)

Le Pont-au-Change (The Exchange Bridge, Paris)

Le Pont-au-Change (The Exchange Bridge, Paris)
Artist / Origin: Charles Méryon (French, 1821–1868)
Region: Europe
Date: 1854
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Etching
Medium: Prints, Drawings, and Photography
Dimensions: H: 6 1/8 in. (15.5 cm.), W: 13 3/16 in. (33.5 cm.)
Location: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Credit: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts.

The nineteenth-century etcher Charles Méryon was a keen observer whose works, many of which feature Parisian cityscapes, contain meticulously rendered detail.

To aid him in this approach, Méryon often relied on camera images. His works, however, are far from copies.

Le Pont-au-Change centers on a bridge in the heart of Paris, between the Île de la Cité and the Right Bank of the Seine. In the background, precisely etched houses make up the tightly packed, maze-like neighborhoods of the medieval city. Méryon shows Paris as it had looked for centuries. But historical fact is just one element in the artist’s work. Méryon interweaves levels of reality here, creating in the process an impending sense of anxiety, perhaps even dread. Le Pont-au-Change was printed in several states, each altered to include invented elements. In earlier versions, for instance, a balloon floats through the sky. In progressive states, more sinister elements enter the scene, including the flocks of dark birds seen here. A drowning man in the water adds to the feeling of foreboding.

In the past, the ominous, unreal atmosphere in many of Méryon’s works was attributed to mental instability. The artist publicly exhibited signs of hallucinatory behavior and spent time in an asylum. Such an explanation, however, would seem to divorce Méryon from the social and cultural context in which he lived and worked. Le Pont-au-Change, for example, was created in 1854 just as the Second Empire was aggressively transforming Paris. The government’s plans to modernize the city included demolishing the older neighborhoods Méryon depicts and replacing them with broad boulevards. The artist seems, therefore, to be playing on apprehensions that were not simply personal, but widespread at the time.

Méryon’s works also exhibit many of the characteristics associated with the nineteenth-century artistic and literary movement known as Romanticism. Disillusionment brought about by events of the French Revolution in the 1790s led many to reconsider the Enlightenment values that had spurred on the cry for change. It was in this aftermath that Romanticism emerged. In contrast with the order and rationality emphasized in the neoclassical works of the previous period, Romanticism stressed individuality, subjectivity, emotionality, and imagination.

Expert Perspective:
James Ganz, Curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

“In the nineteenth century there was an awareness that the city was changing. Some of the older parts of Paris were in a state of extreme decay, and buildings were collapsing. There were plans afoot to modernize the city, to tear down some of the older buildings. But there were many figures—many literary figures and artists—who loved the old Paris, who cherished it. And it became the subject for many of these artists. Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris was a great source of inspiration for many visual artists, including people like Charles Méryon. These artists were really fascinated by death and decay. Charles Méryon’s Paris is inhabited by strange creatures, often birds of prey and creatures swarming through the sky that, of course, were not part of the real world, but that were part of his own imagination.”

Additional Resources

Benjamin, Walter. “Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire.” In Selected Writings of Walter Benjamin, 1938–1940. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003: 53–54.

Burke, James D. Charles Meryon Prints & Drawings. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1974.

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Web site.

Heraeus, Stefanie, and Deborah Laurie Cohen. “Artists and the Dream in Nineteenth-Century Paris: Towards a Prehistory of Surrealism.” History Workshop Journal 48 (Autumn 1999): 151–168.

Hiddleston, James Andrew. Baudelaire and the Art of Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Yarnall, James Leo. “Meryon’s Mystical Transformations.” Art Bulletin 61.2 (June 1979): 289–300.

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