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Herman Melville and The Healing of the Blind

As we suggested in our introductory essay on “Herman Melville as Print Collector,” the decision by Herman and Elizabeth Melville to frame a mezzotint of "The Healing of the Blind" in 1869, presumably for display in the family home, may have been related to the death of Malcolm, their first-born son, two years earlier, at age eighteen, apparently by suicide, alone in his bedroom, in that same family home. From that point of view, the subject of the print Herman took to Elias Dexter to be framed may have been as important as the names of the artist and engraver that were presumably included in the lettering below the image itself that Melville asked Dexter to glue to the back of the frame after it was cut from the front of the print (see our introduction to this entry). On the other hand, the death of the son that preceded the framing of the print may have made Herman and Elizabeth particularly sensitive to the way in which the print depicted those in need of healing and the process by which the sight was restored. That sensitivity may have extended to certain aesthetic or pictorial elements of the original artwork or the mezzotint process by which it was engraved.

Earlom’s Our Savior Healing the Blind after a painting by Annibale Carracci, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, and The State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, is our leading candidate for the print Dexter framed for Melville because it is so clearly a mezzotint. This particular print shows Earlom’s mastery of the soft, seamless transitions the mezzotint process can produce between figure and ground, light and shade, action and stasis, and image and atmosphere. These qualities in Earlom’s print are themselves activated and enhanced by the pictorial design and emotive force of Annibale’s original image. The immediate presence of all six primary figures in the foreground enhances the intimacy with which we feel the touch of the healing finger on the eye that was blind. The slow dance of light and shade across all six faces invites each viewer to see on the outside, and feel on the inside, the response of each depicted figure to the spiritual miracle of the tactile touch.

Even apart from Annibale’s draftmanship and Earlom’s craftsmanship, the emotive intimacy of this mezzotint engraving is the quality that would have made it most suitable for open display in the Melville family home. That the mezzotint process requires the engraver to give life to the image by literally digging the “lights” out of a pitted plate saturated with deep black ink creates a technical parallel to the healing of the blind depicted in the action of the print, a dynamic that could be extended to the healing of hearts in a family home. Such parallels are not likely to have been missed by the author and print collector in 1869 who had written eighteen years earlier about the “linked analogies” by which “not the smallest atom stirs in nature, but has its cunning duplicate in mind” (NN MD 312).

The mezzotint technique and emotive intimacy are not the only qualities that make Earlom’s engraving after Annibale our leading candidate for the print Dexter framed for Melville. Chasteau’s etching and engraving Christ Healing the Blind Men after Poussin is a powerful image but its central action is farther back from the viewer in the lower half of the image within a fully realized, urbanized landscape setting. Marceny de Ghuy’s etching Tobit Returning Sight to his Father after Rembrandt is highly atmospheric but it is a small print, only half the size of Earlom’s mezzotint after Annibale, and its action occurs far from the viewer in a very dark room. In the context of Melville’s entire print collection to the extent that we are able to reconstruct it today, the mezzotint technique in Earlom’s 1785 Our Savior Healing the Blind after Annibale Carracci would provide an instructive contrast to Earlom’s masterful employment of both etching and mezzotint when engraving Landscape—Christ Tempted after Claude Lorrain in 1802 (CAT 135).

One can only hope that the print Dexter framed for Melville in 1869 will some day be found, ideally with the lettering Melville asked Dexter to glue to the back still intact. Until then we hope that anyone with better suggestions than we have offered here for the artist and engraver of Melville’s print will share them with us. We hope that anyone who discovers the original painting by Annibale Carracci from the collection of Robert Adam will share that information with us. The print of the healing of the blind that Dexter framed for Melville was too important to Melville as a collector, and probably as a grieving parent, for us to simply consign it, with the “little print after Murillo,” to our current list of “uncertain, fugitive, half-fabulous prints.” Our attempt to explore here the artist we feel most likely to have created the image from which Melville’s mezzotint of “The Healing of the Blind” was engraved has helped us to “see” the collection of Samuel Rogers, the artistry of the Carracci, and Melville’s life as a collector, in a new light.