The First Thorns of Knowledge
Hugues Merle ( French, 1823 - 1881 )
Trained in the French Academic tradition, Hugues Merle was an expert draftsman who relied on the close study of human anatomy and a smooth, polished style to achieve a sense of naturalism in his paintings. Here the defiant gaze of the child draws viewers into an intimate scene of maternal dedication and youthful disobedience as the boy resists learning the alphabet. Although the subject of this painting seems drawn from everyday life, Merle infuses the scene with a timeless quality through the figures’ simple, classicizing attire and pyramidal pose (a stable arrangement of figures that forms a pyramid), which recalls Renaissance depictions of the Virgin and Child. This kind of moralizing and sentimental subject was popular with audiences at the Paris Salon, where Merle regularly submitted works and achieved a high degree of success in the 1860s.
Nicole Myers, DMA label copy, 2017.