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Raphael in Samuel Rogers’s London Home

The long through line from the visit to Hampton Court in 1849, to the acquisition of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art in 1870, to the climactic moment in the manuscript of Billy Budd, does not exhaust Melville’s lifelong interest in Raphael and his pictorial legacy. One month after his visit to Hampton Court in November 1849, he saw two Raphael paintings, in addition to several drawings, among the “superb pictures” in the private collection of the poet Samuel Rogers in London. He also saw paintings by other Italian Old Masters whose work he was to acquire in the form of engravings later in life: Francia, Titian, Veronese, Guido, and Domenichino. Melville visited Rogers’s fabled collection at St. James Place on December 19, 1849, soon after having made is third visit to the Old Master paintings in London’s National Gallery. Rogers’s private collection was reputed to be the finest in London—in addition to being the one best suited for introducing a young initiate into the glories of Old Master art. Melville’s initiation into Old Master paintings at Hampton Court had been followed by visits to the Dulwich Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris, and museums and churches in Cologne in addition to London’s National Gallery, so he was fully primed to absorb whatever could be learned from Rogers and his private picture gallery. On the first of two visits Melville was alone with his host: “No one but he & I together” (NN J 16, 44, 46; Wallace, 1992: 288-96).

When Elizabeth Eastlake published her “Reminiscences of Samuel Rogers” in the Quarterly Review in 1888, while Melville was consolidating his now very extensive collection of Old Master prints, she remembered two paintings with special affection from her visits to Rogers’s collection before his death in 1856. One of those was Titian’s Christ appearing to the Magdalene, better known as Noli me Tangere (see CAT 109, fig. 2). That painting was widely considered to be the “gem” of Rogers’s collection; he bequeathed it to London’s National Gallery, where Melville would have seen it again when he returned to London in late April 1857 on the way home from Italy and the Mediterranean (NN J 128, 52). The other work that still remained indelible in Elizabeth Eastlake’s eye and mind thirty years after Rogers’s death was Raphael’s Virgin and Child (fig. 4), “one of the master’s sweetest compositions; the child standing with one foot on his mother’s hand. It had been reduced by ruthless rubbings to a mere a mere shadow, but the beauty was ineffaceable: hanging—how well remembered!—in the best light on the left hand wall in the drawing-room” (508).

CAT 108 fig 3 Madonna and Child National Gallery from Rogers.jpg

Figure 4. Raphael. Virgin and Child, in Landscape, oil on canvas, c. 1510, in collection of Samuel Rogers until 1856. Known as the “Mackintosh Madonna” after being acquired by London’s National Gallery in 1906.

In the Catalogue of Rogers’s Collection published in Appendix IX of the 1844 edition of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art, this painting by Raphael, identified as Virgin and Child, in Landscape (fig. 4), was the first of 72 to be listed. This painting has been known as the “Mackintosh Madonna” since it was acquired by London’s National Gallery in 1906. The description of the painting on the National Gallery website indicates that “this painting is in a ruinous and repainted condition, in part due to its being transferred from panel to canvass in the 18th century.” For this reason, Raphael’s drawing for this image currently at the British Museum in London gives a stronger sense of how “the slight turn of the Virgin’s face away from her son expresses the terrible burden of the knowledge of his fate that she must share.” The “psychological depth that has been lost in the damaged painting . . . reveals why this was one of Raphael’s compositions that appealed most powerfully to later artists” (“The Macintosh Madonna”). In December 1850, exactly one year after his two visits to Rogers’s private collection, Melville used an unexpectedly precise pictorial metaphor in writing to Evert Duyckinck about the delicate process of writing the novel about whaling he would soon be calling Moby-Dick: “taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish & dangerous of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole brain to get at it with due safety — & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble” (NN Co 174). This extended metaphor for the process of writing Moby-Dick may reflect what Rogers had revealed to him about the “ruinous” condition of his nevertheless precious image of Raphael’s Mother and Child.

CAT 108 fig 2 Raphael The Agony in the_Garden NY MET Wikimedia.jpg

Figure 5. Raphael. The Agony in the Garden, oil on panel, c. 1504. New York Metropolitan Museum. Known as Christ in the Garden when Melville saw it in the collection of Samuel Rogers in December 1849.

The other painting by Raphael that young Melville would have seen in the company of Rogers was Christ in the Garden (fig. 5). The second title to be listed in the 1844 Catalogue, this painting was “once part of a predella to the altarpiece which Raphael painted in 1505 for the nuns of St. Anthony at Perugia” (n.p.). In pictorial style, this painting resembles The Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian that Francia was at the same time beginning to paint in the Saint Cecilia Oratorio in Bologna. Young Raphael was only 22 years old when he painted this predella in Perugia; its pictorial style could in one sense be called pre-Raphaelite since it still adhered to the more static mode of Perugino’s paintings. This painting of Christ in the Garden depicts Christ praying in a landscape, near three sleeping disciples, in advance of the arrest and crucifixion that are soon to follow, the angel above him with a chalice signifying the fate he will soon be accepting (fig. 5). In 1932 this small painting (9 x 11 inches) was acquired by the New York Metropolitan Museum, where it was reunited with elements of the original Perugia altarpiece.

Perhaps the closest equivalent to Melville’s initiation into the world of Old Master painters in the picture galleries of England in 1849 came in the essay “On the Pleasure of Painting” in the copy of the 1845 American edition of Hazlitt’s Table-Talk that Melville inherited from his older brother Gansevoort, who had died in London in 1846 while serving as secretary to the American ambassador to England. Hazlitt introduces his own initiation into the picture galleries of England by asking his reader to imagine “the young artist” who “makes a pilgrimage to each of these places” and sees such “treasures” as he had previously only imagined. The experience “is stamped on his brain, and lives there henceforward, a clue to nature, and a test of art. He furnishes out the chambers of his mind from the spoils of time, picks and chooses which shall have the best places—nearest his heart.” Hazlitt was himself initiated “into the mysteries of the art was at the Orleans Gallery” in London. In 1798 this gallery had begun to display hundreds of paintings from the former collection of Duke Philippe d’Orleans in France. Young Hazlitt had “heard the names of Titian, Raphael, Guido, Domenichino, the Caracci” before entering this gallery, but “to see them face to face, to be in the same room with their deathly productions, was like breaking some potent spell—was almost an effect of necromancy! From that time I lived in a world of pictures. Battles, sieges, speeches in parliament, seemed mere idle noise and fury, ‘signifying nothing,’ compared with those mighty works and dreaded names that spoke to me of the eternal silence of thought” (Hazlitt, Table-Talk, 1:12-13). Many of the paintings Melville saw in the company of Samuel Rogers in 1849—including Titian’s Noli me Tangere, Raphael’s Madonna and Child, and Raphael’s Christ in the Garden—had been purchased at the sale of the Orleans Collection whose treasures had initiated Hazlitt into the world of the Old Masters.