Charles Meryon

Charles Meryon

There are people who, from birth, are unable to perceive any colours at all or only particular colours. Most common is red-green colour-blindness or, depending on the degree, red-green weakness. People with this condition can see the colours red and green only poorly or not at all. Mixed colours containing red and green appear as if they contained less or no red or green hues at all.

A red-green weakness might not be obvious in the work of an affected artist . It is more likely that the colours chosen will be attributed to the artist’s individual style. For example, Fernand Léger and Piet Mondrian preferred the primary colours red, yellow and blue and avoided green. However, it has not been conclusively decided whether they suffered from a red-green weakness. It is only in the most severe cases, where an artist’s perception of colour is so badly distorted that his palette is either severely restricted or he often chooses „unnatural“ colours, that it can be assumed that there is a changed perception of colour. Generally artists who notice a weakness in their colour vision diversify into those art forms where colour does not play a role – for instance sculpture, ink drawings or copperplate engraving.

An exception is French artist Charles Meryon (1821 to 1868). The son of an English doctor and a French dancer at the Opéra de Paris initially decided to take up a career as an officer in the French Navy, but soon developed an interest in art. During a four-year voyage around the world he captured scenes of exotic countries in numerous drawings.

At the age of 25 Meryon decided to leave the Navy and become an artist. However, whilst he was studying in Paris, it transpired that due to his inherent visual impairment he would never succeed in transferring his talent for drawing to oil painting, so he turned to creating etchings and drawings. But he never gave up painting entirely and occasionally painted in oils and pastels. Unfortunately only a few of his colour paintings have survived. One of them is his pastel „The Ghost Ship“, which shows evidence of his visual weakness: Meryon used no shades of red or green, but mainly blue and yellow. The sky is dominated by yellow and orange, and the sea is painted in a clear blue, without the usual green hues.

Today Meryon is mainly known for his detailed etchings full of nuances, such as his views of old Paris, created around 1849. Victor Hugo once wrote of Meryon“s work, „… his superb etchings with nothing but light and shadow, bright and dark bedazzled me.“


Charles Meryon died in 1868 aged just 47, but his impressive work has influenced numerous artists ever since.

More information on colour blindness.