Singer/librettist Daniel Neer originated the idea of Mercury Falling. Both he and I were drawn to Jean-Louis Brians tragic death as emblematic of the self-sacrificing artist, a Romantic myth which our piece both dramatizes and critiques. Brian died as the avant-garde movement was beginning to stir — 1863 marked the original Salon des Refusés, the first major exhibition to challenge the established Salon exposition. But Brian was from an older generation, and though a success early in his career (he won the Prix de Rome), his work nonetheless never attained a firm footing in established artistic circles. His story is worth remembering precisely because, contrary to our late modern idea of the artist, he wasnt a misunderstood visionary. His artistic goals, like those of most artists then and now, were in line with prevailing aesthetic values. But met with indifference, he vacillates between the impulse to pander to the publics superficial tastes or to withdraw into isolation.
Brians story exposes the variety of motivations that drive all artists — the desire for recognition, respect, financial gain and fame, but also the sheer joy and pride in creating. Tragically, it also exposes the real struggles that every artist must face — to pander and compromise or risk deprivation and even death. In the nineteenth century, his death served as both a tribute to artistic commitment and a warning of the precariousness of Bohemian life. After nearly a century and a half, these lessons may seem superficial and naïve, but what drove Brian to create and the obstacles he faced are as relevant as ever.
Brians talent, hard work and sincere motivations could not guarantee lasting success, even posthumously. In our drama, his admirable statue of Mercury possesses enough mythical power (that is, artistic merit) to bestow the Salons prize on its creator, but ultimately it withdraws to its original passive, inanimate stance. Brians choice to depict his Mercury in repose instead of in action was an unorthodox choice and an ironic one, since it ultimately failed to deliver its creator the success he so desired.