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Flaxman's Illustrations of Aeschylus, The Persians

In the 1790s the English artist John Flaxman (1755-1823) created outline drawings illustrating the works of Homer and Aeschylus in a style evoking Ancient Grecian urns and vases. Engraved by Tommoso Piroli in a limited edition in 1795, they were reissued by Longman in 1803 and became immensely popular, leading to the publication of Flaxman’s Dante illustrations by Longman in 1807. Flaxman’s illustrations of Homer and Aeschylus strongly influenced the way in which the ancient world was viewed by artists and writers not only in England but throughout Europe. Europeans deeply influenced by his unique outline style included Goethe, Schlegel, and Schiller in Germany; David, Géricault, and Ingres in France; and Goya in Spain. Melville acquired four of Flaxman’s illustrations of The Persians by Aeschylus in an 1833 edition of Flaxman’s Oeuvre Complet “newly engraved” by Etienne Achille Réveil in Paris. Because of the cultural importance of these images beyond the confines of Flaxman’s career, I am presenting the Aeschylus engravings in this chapter. The prints Melville collected from Flaxman’s Dante appear in the Italy chapter (CAT 80-102).     

In the engravings illustrating The Persians, Melville had imaginative access not only to Aeschylus and Flaxman but also to the famous defeat of the Persians by the Greeks at Salamis in 480 B.C. The subject of the play is the celebrated battle in which the entire fleet of the Persian army, under the command of Xerxes, was destroyed by the Greek navy in the Straits of Salamis near Athens. Aeschylus was present at the Battle of Salamis; he completed his play eight years later, in 472 B.C. The Persians is at once “the first extant tragedy” by Aeschylus and “the earliest surviving drama in the entire Western tradition” (Aeschylus/Herington, p. 13). Yet Aeschylus set the play not in Greece but in Susa, the capital of Persia. The celebrated Battle is seen only from the point of view of exclusively Persian characters (the chorus, the Messenger, Atossa, the Ghost of Darius, and Xerxes).

The Persians is one of seven plays by Aeschylus that Melville acquired in 1849 as part of the 37-volume edition of Harper’s Classical Library (Sealts no. 147; vol. 13, tr. R. Potter). One year later in White-Jacket Melville wrote of “war-hug” that “the flag-ships of all the Greek and Persian craft . . . exchanged . . . at Salamis” (NN WJ 211). A year later in Moby-Dick Melville alluded conspicuously to Xerxes in chapter 81, when the aged bull whale is harpooned and sounds out of sight. Ishmael imagines the scene as it might have appeared to the wounded whale. “In that sloping afternoon sunlight, the shadows that the three boats sent down beneath the surface, must have been long enough and broad enough to shade half Xerxes’ army. Who can tell how appalling to the wounded whale must have been such huge phantoms flitting over his head!” (NN MD 356). Not only does Ishmael allude to the fate of Xerxes’ sunken army at Salamis; he does so with an empathy for the “enemy” comparable to that in Aeschylus’s play. 

In Pierre (1852) Melville characterizes “Flaxman’s Homer” in words that apply equally well to the four prints he acquired from Flaxman’s Aeschylus: “clear-cut outlines, yet full of unadorned barbaric nobleness” (NN P 42).  

Howard H. Schless (see headnote for Flaxman’s Dante) surmises that Melville may have acquired his prints from Réveil's  edition of Flaxman during his visit to Paris in 1849. Flaxman’s Oeuvre Complet was published in thirty softbound volumes of nine plates each; out of thirty-one plates devoted to Aeschylus, Melville acquired the last four, plates 28-31, illustrating Acts 2-4 of Les Perses. The front and back covers of Melville’s Aeschylus volume are preserved along with the four prints at the Berkshire Athenaeum (figs. 1 and 2). Printed on the back cover is a handy list of the number of plates that Réveil had engraved for each of Flaxman’s literary projects: Homer, The Iliad, 39; The Odyssey, 34; Aeschylus, Tragedies, 31; Dante, The Inferno, 38, The Purgatory, 38, The Paradise, 34; Hesiod, The Work of the Day and The Theogonie, 37; Statues and Bas-reliefs, 18.

In the Print Identification for each of the Aeschylus prints Melville acquired, the French title for the 1833 Réveil edition is followed by the English title from the 1795 Piroli edition. In our Print Identification for all of the Aeschylus prints, we use the name Réveil as Melville would have seen it on the print. In our commentary for each print, we use the accented Réveil in current use by art historians. 

CAT 2-5 Reveil after Flaxman Aeschylus BA 10 front cover.jpg

Figure 1. Front cover of Melville's of Flaxman's Aeschylus. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

The paperback cover for this volume from the 1833 Réveil edition of Flaxman’s edition would have had sentimental meaning for Melville if he had acquired it during his visit to Paris as a young man in December 1849. On the front cover Melville (or someone else) has written by hand that this is the ninth volume in the series.

flaxman back.jpg

Figure 2. Back cover of Melville's of Flaxman's Aeschylus. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Just from glancing at the back cover of this publication, Melville would have seen a quick overview of Flaxman’s Complete Works as engraved by Réveil.

  • Works Cited in this section
  • Aeschylus, Persians, trs. Janet Lembke and C. J. Herington. New York: Oxford, 1981. “Introduction” by Herington (3-35).
  • --------. The Persians, tr. R. Potter. In Aeschylus. New York: Harper & Brothers, c. 1844. Pp. 309-42, with “Essay on the Grecian Drama” by John S. Harford, v-lxxi (Sealts no. 147).
  • Bindman, David, ed. John Flaxman. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.
  • Rosenblum, Robert. Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Flaxman's Illustrations of Aeschylus, The Persians