Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

The Human Comedy: Chronicles of 19th-Century France

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Le Stryge

Le Stryge

Charles Meryon (French, 1821–1868) Le Stryge (The Vampire), 1853 Etching Mrs. F.F. Prentiss Bequest, 1944.66

« Insatiable vampire l'éternelle Luxure /Sur la Grande Cité con-voite sa pâture. »

“Insatiable vampire, eternal Excess, / Above the Great City, lusts over its prey.”

Master etcher Charles Meryon was a friend of Baudelaire and shared many of his sensibilities. Though produced during a period of modernization, this work uses medieval motifs. The gargoyles perched atop Notre Dame Cathedral overlook the Saint Jacques Tower and the city streets below, many of which—dirty, narrow, and dimly lit—still looked much the same as they had in the middle ages. For Meryon, Paris is a city of lustful appetites, which no amount of urban reform can quell.

Meryon chose to personify “Luxuria,” or Lust—one of the seven deadly sins—as a stryge (translated here as vam-pire), a creature from Greek mythology with the head of a woman and the body of a bird. The stryge also has a long association in French with the figure of the prostitute. When Baudelaire wrote to his mother about this print, he likely re-ferred to a moral abyss as much as to a topographical one: “The hideous and colossal figure [...] is one of the figures decorating the exterior of Notre Dame. In the background is Paris, viewed from a height. How the devil this man man-ages to work so calmly over an abyss I do not know.” “OLD PARIS IS NO MORE”

Baudelaire, Meryon, and many other artists in this exhibi-tion shared a sense of melancholy about the death of “Old Paris,” the legendary city center with its narrow, winding, medieval streets and its unique forms of culture and socia-bility. In 1853 the urban planner Georges-Eugène (later Baron) Haussmann, working under the aegis of Napoléon III, broke ground on a massive urban renewal project aimed at cleaning up the insalubrious city center—site of cholera outbreaks and criminality. Better circulation of light, air, and water would be made possible through the construction of wider streets, new parks, and a modernized city sewage system. People and goods would circulate freely across the city and have better access to major railroad hubs. Troop movement would be facilitated and the erection of barri-cades, such as those used in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, would be more difficult.

For many writers and artists, Haussmann’s reforms were draining the heart, the soul, and the history out of a great city. Baudelaire captured this sense of melancholy when he lamented in his famous poem Le Cygne (The Swan), trans-lated here by William Aggeler:

“— Old Paris is no more (the form of a city Changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart); […] New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone, Old quarters, all become for me an allegory, And my dear memories are heavier than rocks.”