Hugues Merle: Susannah at her Bath
A student of Leon Cogniet, Hugues Merle first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1847 and continued to do so annually until 1880. He was twice awarded the second class medal in 1861 and 1863, and he was made a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor in 1866. Merle was often compared by his contemporaries to the most famous academic artist of the time, William Adolphe Bouguereau, and it was written at the time that the artist 'became a considerable rival to Bouguereau in subject and treatment' (C. H. Stranahan, A History of French Painting from its Earliest to its Latest Practice, New York, 1917, p. 398). Like Bouguereau, Merle was extremely popular among American collectors at the end of the 19th Century and canvases by the artist graced the collections of Robert Sterling Clark and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Susannah at her Bath is a superb example of Merle's complete mastery of the Academic technique. Executed on a large scale, and surely a Salon entry, this painting was executed by the artist at the height of his career. Precise draughtsmanship and a close study of the human anatomy were considered the foundations of the Academic education and an artist's reputation and career were predicated on his ability to accurately and naturally depict the human form and expression. Choices of subject were clearly important, and in Susannah at her Bath Merle moves away from his usual subject matter of mothers and children and has taken on a subject more monumental and serious. His depiction of Susannah, at the moment that she becomes aware that she is not alone as she rises out of the water of her bath, is a tour-de-force of technique and expression. The young woman wears an expression of anguish and turns her body away from the old men hiding within the trees, trying vainly to cover herself with her chemise. The whiteness of her flesh is offset by the vibrant rose of her dress which hangs from a tree branch. Her golden hair cascades down her back and is painted with multiple layers of the finest glazes. Merle's handling and separation of the textures of female flesh, the linen chemise, the silken robe and the delicacy of Susannah's hands place him squarely in the company of Bouguereau and Munier at the forefront of the proponents of the Academic tradition at the end of the 19th Century. [Christie’s]