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Sumner and Melville as Print Collectors

Merton Sealts was the first to suggest that Melville may have begun the poetry of “At the Hostelry” fairly soon after the trip to Italy in 1857. Hershel Parker and the other editors of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Unfinished Writings (published in 2017) have clearly established that Melville continued to revise and refine this poem, as well as its “Afternoon in Naples” sequel, intermittently through to the time of his death in 1891. In addition to sorting through the maze of manuscript leaves Melville generated for these narrative poems over the decades, they also sorted through and edited the various prose sketches by which he had planned to introduce and contextualize the imagined narrator of each poem, the Marquis de Grandvin for “At the Hostelry” and Jack Gentian for “An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba.” All of these elements were part of the Parthenope project Melville left unpublished at his death. Its origins during his visit to Naples and the galleries of Italy in 1857 had been incrementally enriched by his close attention to the process by which Garibaldi and others unified much of Italy in the 1860s, by his own deep dive into Mediterranean cultural history while writing Clarel with the help of his expanding book and print collections in the 1870s, and by re-immersion in his own direct experience of Italy when revising “Venice” and other “Fruit of Travel Long Ago” for publication in Timoleon in 1891 (NN BBO 129-202, 203-24, 634-839).

Melville’s prose sketch of “To Major Jack Gentian,” the presiding spirit of “An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba,” introduces him as the genial “Dean of the Burgundy Club” in New York City. Major Gentian was a transplanted Southerner in the Union army who had lost an arm “in the Wilderness under Grant” during the American Civil War. Now, years after “Grant and Lee shook hands at Appomattox,” the former soldier enjoys relaxed “club-chat” in a quiet Manhattan retreat. This reconstructed Southerner is honored in this sketch for conducting himself “in sympathy with the spirit of thy deplored New England friend, Charles Sumner—whom, for what was sterling in him, thou didst so sincerely honor, though far from sharing in all his advocated measures” (NN BBO 169-70).

Charles Sumner was the U. S. Senator from Massachusetts to whom Melville had applied, unsuccessfully, for an overseas consulate position in 1861 (NN CO 369-70). Sumner was also a devoted student of old master engravings—a love that had developed when recuperating from the notorious beating he had suffered on the floor of the United States Senate at the hands of Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina in 1856. Sumner had expressed his love for engraved artwork in the essay on “The Best Portraits in Engraving” that he published in 1871, reprinted soon after his death as an illustrated booklet in 1875. “Suffering from continued prostration, disabling me from the ordinary activities of life,” Sumner had written, “I turned to engravings for employment and pastime.” He had begun this activity at the Gray Collection in Cambridge, “enjoying it like a picture-gallery.” His pleasure intensified “in Paris, while undergoing severe medical treatment,” where “my daily medicine for weeks was the vast cabinet of engravings” in the National collection (Sumner 3-4).

Sumner had a particular interest in engraved portraits. The first artists he mentions are “Raffaelle, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez.” Among the first portraits he mentions are “the female figures of Titian, so much admired under the names of Flora, La Bella, his daughter, his mistress, and even his Venus,” all of them “portraits from life.” Because a great engraving is a translation, not a copy, requiring skills comparable to those of the artist himself, Sumner states that “a work of Raffaelle, or any of the great masters, is better in an engraving of Longhi or Morghen than in any ordinary copy” (5-8). Sumner’s favorite engravers in the successive national schools include many who are represented in Melville’s collection: Volpato, Morghen, and Longhi in the Italian school; Drevet and Schmidt in the French school; Houbraken in the Netherlands; Bartolozzi and Sharp in the English school (21-30). With Morghen and Longhi, Sumner specifically mentions the portraits of Ariosto, Tasso, Dante, and Napoleon that are reproduced in this chapter (CAT 104, 105MBB 2.2, 117).

The one contemporary engraver Sumner mentions is Eduard Mandel, whose “recent engraving of Titian” was “reproduced from the gallery of Berlin.” Sumner celebrates Mandel as a “gentle genius” whose fame was “beginning to ascend” as Sumner wrote the essay in 1871 (10, 30). Mandel’s 1868 engraving of Titian’s La Bella (fig. 6) certainly exemplifies Sumner’s contention that a highly skilled engraver can often produce a more satisfactory representation of an Old Master portrait than a copyist working in the painter’s own medium.

CAT 110 fig 6 Mandel after Titian La Bella Berlin state museum jpg.jpg

Figure 8. Eduard Mandel after Reinold Mandel after Titian. La Bella. From the 1536 painting in the Pitti Gallery, Florence. Berlin: E. H. Schroeder, 1868.

Melville, like Sumner, admired representations of Old Master paintings created by engravers active in the years following the American Civil War. Melville’s print collection included Péquénot’s evocative 1867 engraving after Boucher’s Venus et Amours (CAT 161), Greux’s sophisticated 1882 engraving after Watteau’s L’Île Enchantée (CAT 159), and Manet’s 1868 etching of his own Boy with a Sword (CAT 174). Given Melville’s high admiration for Titian’s portraits of women as he traveled through Italy in 1857, the “excess of pleasure” he felt when face to face with Titian’s Venus of Urbino (CAT 109, fig. 3) and Bella Donna at the Uffizi and Pitti Galleries in Florence (CAT 109, fig. 4), this followed by his allusions to these and other Titian portraits in Clarel and “The Story of Daniel Orme,” one can assume he would have shared Sumner’s admiration for Mandel’s rare gift for converting Titian’s richly colored oil paintings on canvas into exquisite images in ink on paper (NN C 4.20.231-32 and 4.26.200-01, 228-36; NN BBO 232).

Herman Melville met Charles Sumner in the summer of 1847 at a party in Boston celebrating Herman’s imminent marriage to Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw (Leyda 254). Shaw and Sumner anchored opposing sides of the nation’s most serious conflict during the 1850s, when Senator Sumner opposed the new Fugitive Slave Law under which Judge Shaw sent Thomas Sims back to Georgia in 1851. In 1861, Senator Sumner had become an influential Republican under the new Lincoln administration, and Judge Shaw was one of many who recommended Melville to him for a consular appointment in Florence, Italy. Melville visited Washington in hopes of discussing this possibility directly with the Senator, but the impending death of Judge Shaw caused Melville to cancel a scheduled meeting with Sumner in order to return to Massachusetts (Parker 2:462-66; NN CO 369-70). One wonders if the two men ever had a chance, before Sumner’s death in 1874, to share their mutual enthusiasm for Morghen’s engraved portraits of Tasso, Ariosto, and Dante or Titian’s portraits of Italian women.

Melville never wrote an essay such as Sumner’s about the prints he liked best, but we can follow his growing interest in the subject of engraving in two books he acquired within a year of Sumner’s death, The Handbook of Engraved Gems by Charles King in 1874 and The Wonders of Engraving by Georges Duplessis in 1875 (Sealts nos. 308, 195). King provided rare reproductions and commentary relating to the Greek and Persian coins in Melville’s 1816 print (CAT 1; MBB 1.1). Duplessis provided a connoisseur’s overview of the leading engravers in all the national schools represented in Melville’s print collection (as seen throughout this website). By the time of Sumner’s death, we can assume that Elizabeth Shaw was a codependent in her husband’s addiction to the wonders of engraving: each of these books is inscribed as a present to her.