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Ancient Greek Busts

The Ancient Greek busts in this section were all engraved for publication in the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings (London: 1807-19). Each was engraved by George Cooke and published by Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, with dates of publication ranging from 1807 to 1812. The date indicated on the engraved print sometimes differs from that of the volume of the Historical Gallery in which it appears; the Gallery itself appears to have been published first in four volumes (Willoughby and Co.) and then expanded to seven (Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe). Many portraits appear under different volumes and dates in these respective editions; I have used the seven-volume edition for my bracketed additions to the successive catalog entries. Its ambitious scope is indicated by the full title: The Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings; or, Biographical Review: Containing a Brief Account of the Lives of the Most Celebrated Men, in every Age and Country; and Graphic Imitations of the Finest Specimens of the Arts; Ancient and Modern; with Remarks, Critical and Explanatory.  

Although the individual prints that Melville collected contain no verbal information beyond the words on the face of the print itself, the letterpress commentary that accompanied each print in the Historical Gallery provides useful information about the personage or artwork whose image has been engraved. Such information is the obvious starting point in determining the cultural status of the engraved subject as it would have been available to Melville as a collector. I have therefore quoted selectively from the commentary in the Historic Gallery for each of the prints that Melville collected. The editors of the Historic Gallery declare that “the utility of biography cannot be questioned.” Yet the verbal art of biography is also “capable of receiving considerable aid and embellishment from sculpture, and painting.” The goal of their enterprise is therefore to demonstrate “the union . . . of History, Painting, and Sculpture, and their dependence upon each other” (Preface, Willoughby edition). Melville’s print collection allows us to see the interdependence between history and visual art in his own imagination. As he declared in his lecture on “Statues in Rome” in 1857-58, “histories and memoirs tell us” of the “achievements” of “ancient personages,” but in sculpture “we find how they looked, and we learn them as we do living men” (NN PTO 400).

In aesthetic style as well as historical subject matter, the Ancient Greek busts from the Historic Gallery are a natural complement to Melville’s engravings from Flaxman’s Aeschylus. The success of Flaxman’s outline engravings for both Homer and Aeschylus published by Longman in 1803 no doubt helped to pave the way for the engravings of ancient subjects that began to appear in the Historical Gallery in 1807. In addition to the Ancient Greek busts catalogued in this chapter, Melville collected a series of Ancient Roman busts cataloged in Chapter 2 (CAT 70-77). He appears to have kept his Greek and Roman busts together within his collection, for when I first consulted these prints at the Berkshire Athenaeum in 1985 they were enclosed within a folded sheet of paper on the outside of which he had written “Busts / Antique” in green crayon. In addition to antique busts from the “Portraits” component of the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, Melville also collected a number “Graphic Imitations” from its “Paintings” component. These too, as we shall see, were influenced by the outline engravings recently made popular by Flaxman. Many are of Ancient subjects, such as Le Brun’s Battle of Granicus and David’s Death of Socrates (CAT 155 and 165).   

A mere listing of the Ancient Greek personages whose busts Melville acquired in individual prints made for the Historic Gallery—Homer, Sophocles, Pericles, Alcibiades, Isocrates, Xenophon, Plato, Aristippus,  and Plutarch—opens up associations in ancient literature, history, philosophy, and public affairs that would have resonated in both his life and writing. When Melville arrived in Rome in February 1857, he attended closely to antique busts in both the Capitol and the Vatican. These ancient busts played a central role in his lecture on “Statues in Rome” later that year, when he explained that they provide the illusion of seeing ancient personages as they would have looked “in real life” (NN PTO 400). The Greek subjects of Melville’s “Busts / Antique” were present in his library as well as his print collection; they inhabit the poetry he wrote as well as the prose. Melville owned individual volumes of works by Homer, Sophocles, Xenophon, and Plutarch; they and other Greek contemporaries are represented in a wide range of other books that he owned. In Melville’s fiction, the influence of Greek philosophers and historians first became pervasive in the extended philosophical dialogues that Babbalanja initiates with Taji, Yoomy, Mohi, and Bardianna in Mardi. Such influences are equally pervasive, though less verbose or transparent, in Moby-Dick. Many of the individual poems that Melville published in Timoleon (1891) refer directly to ancient Greek personages and artistry, but again the influence is equally strong, if often less transparent, in Clarel (1876).  

Although much has been written about Melville’s relation to Greek thought and literature, some of the most striking insights on this subject were provided by Athanasios C. Christodoulou in his opening comments as co-host of the first International Melville Conference, in Volos, Greece, on July 2, 1997. As the first person who had translated Moby-Dick into Greek, and as a critic who had studied Mardi with an intensity and tenacity that many American scholars reserve for Moby-Dick itself, Christodoulou had arrived at this realization: “although Melville had written his works in the English language, in essence, he was a mind that was very much Greek in its thought, perhaps the last ring in the chain of the great ancient Greek philosophers.” Corollary to this realization is Christodoulou’s belief that “Melville is the most important authority on ancient Greek philosophy and thus the most important philosopher of later Western thought.” He is the one “restless and authentic, even primitive, spirit” within the Western tradition who has “spoken the boldest, most sincere and profound words about ‘man,’ irrespective of color, race, nationality, class, or religion” (Christodoulou, “Foreword,” Melville “Among the Nations,” 11-12).

George Cooke (1781-1834) was an English line engraver who is best known today for collaborating with his brother William in producing Cooke’s Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England (1814-1827), a series for which the Cooke brothers engraved 28 of the 39 images after watercolors by J. M. W. Turner. For Melville’s thirty-plus prints after images by Turner, see chapter 7. 

  • Works Cited in this section
  • The Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, 7 vol. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807-19. Abbreviated hereafter as HG. Accessible online at
  • Melville “Among the Nations”: Proceedings of an International Conference, Volos, Greece, July 2-6, 1997. Ed. Sanford E. Marovitz and A. C. Christodoulou. Kent OH: Kent State University Press, 2001.
  • Plutarch. The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans. The Dryden translation, ed. and rev. by Arthur Hugh Clough. 2 vol. New York: Modern Library, 1992.