CAT 68. J. S. Küslen after Stefano della Bella. Esclave tenant un chameu par la bride (Slave holding a camel by the bridle) from della Bella’s Plusieurs têtes coiffées à la persiennes, 1649. Melville Chapin Collection
The head of this Slave holding a camel by the bridle is considered to be Persian because the original 1649 etching appeared in della Bella’s Plusieurs têtes coiffées à la persienne (nos. 181-192 in De Vesme; nos. 79-89 in Le Blanc, who mistakenly gives “parisienne” for “persienne”). Its companion piece in this group of oval portraits depicts a Negro slave holding a horse by the bridle (De Vesme/Massar, nos. 191 and 192). Whereas the horse in the companion image is adorned with the feathers of an ostrich, the camel in Melville’s engraving wears only the camel-hair of his own coat. This allows della Bella to display one his most innovative techniques as a seventeenth-century etcher: “making strikes of shading define a form by their ends, instead of bounding it with a drawn outline” (De Vesme/Massar, 14). Equally remarkable about this double portrait is the spatial relation between the camel’s head, the man’s head, and the camel’s breast and hump. Here we see della Bella’s gift for catching living figures in a tableau that implies both past and future action.
In the journal of his visit to the Mediterranean in 1856-57, Melville first took note of the “feathery-looking” hair and “crain-like neck” of a camel on the island of Smyrna. In Cairo he devoted an entire paragraph to the interaction between a “donkey boy” and his donkey (NN J 69, 77). In Clarel, Melville’s treatment of camels, horses, and their human companions moved even closer to the freedom and delicacy of della Bella’s etched portraits. In “Flight of the Greeks,” a camel and its rider are introduced in comic terms: “Lurching was seen / An Arab tall, on camel lean.” But the humor quickly transfers to the Christian missionary tract offered to the Arabic rider by Nehemiah. As the “lofty nomad” bends to read it, “The camel too / Her crane-like neck swerved round to view” the object whose “ciphers” were as “inscrutable” to camel as to man. “The beast, misjudging, snapped it up, / And would have munched, but let it drop; / Her master, poling down his spear / Transfixed his page and brought it near, / Nor stayed his travel” (NN C 2.13.14-15, 31-41). Melville endows this camel, as he does the horse of the Druze who guides the pilgrims, with a near-human personality.
Della Bella made his first drawings of camels and their Persian companions in Rome, where he engraved a six-print series over eight feet long to document the “grand entry” of the Polish Ambassador to the Holy See on November 27, 1633. One of these prints includes “Ten camels with the most splendid saddlecloths of embroidered red velvet, with shoes, headstalls, and headbands of silver, led by Persians and Armenians in diverse dress” (Massar 44; see also 48, 106).
S. Küslen (1646-1717) was one of the outstanding female engravers of her age. Born in Augsburg to a family of engravers, she was also known professionally as Johanna Sibilla Küselin. Her virtuoso technique was well suited to the meticulous designs she reproduced from artists such as Callot and della Bella. De Vesme reports that one authority mistakenly described one of della Bella’s Persian heads as Küslen’s self-portrait (De Vesme/Massar 77).