Born in the village of St. Marcellin in 1823, Hugues Merle was a sensitive genre painter of great talent whose paintings of the simple, noble lives of the working class won him international recognition. Merle concentrated on a range of subjects, including allegories, historical anecdotes and highly finished rural genre scenes, often of mothers and children. It was this latter that won him his greatest success.
After studying with Leon Cogniet at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he embarked on a series of paintings depicting historical themes including The Assassination of Henry the III, which was acquired by the French government in 1863 for exhibition at the Musee de Pau.
Merle was accorded a regular place at the Paris Salon where he submitted paintings from 1847 until 1880. He received second class prizes in 1861 and 1863. In 1866 he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
Merle's idealism and charming subjects found a solid clientele among the newly affluent French and American art patrons. The artist became a friend of Paul Durand-Ruel in the early 1860s, and painted several portraits of Durand-Ruel, his wife, and their son. Durand-Ruel introduced the artist to painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, who became both his friend and rival. At the urging of Durand-Ruel, Bouguereau took up Merle's highly successful theme of familial love on which the latter had built a solid reputation.
Later Merle and Bouguereau found lucrative employment with Goupil, and Merle became the teacher of Bouguereau's wife, Elizabeth Gardner.
Hugues Merle died in 1881 in Paris. His son Georges Merle also became a painter. Well-known for depictions with a sentimental spirit, Merle remains important; his best-known work, The Mendicant, now hangs in the Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2nd class medal, Paris Salon, 1861 & 1863
Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, 1866
Musee d'Orsay, Paris
The Wallace Collection, London
Municipal Museum, Amsterdam
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Art Institute of Chicago
The Brooklyn Museum
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Museum of Art, Dallas
The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown
Layton Art Gallery, Milwaukee
Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore