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Hero and Leander

CAT 167 W Cooke after Taillasson Hero and Leander BA 121.jpg

CAT 167. W. Cooke after Jean-Joseph Taillasson. Hero and Leander. London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1808. Published in Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 3, 1815. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Jean-Joseph Taillasson (1745-1809) was born in Bordeaux. After studying in Paris, he traveled to Rome in 1772, returning to Paris in 1775. Taillasson was accepted into the Académie Royale after submitting a painting based on the Birth of Louis XIII and he exhibited at the Salon from 1785 to 1807. His neo-classicism took a strong literary course; some of his most notable paintings included Virgil Reading the Aeneid (1787), Sappho throwing herself from the Rocks  (1791), and Timoleon and the Syracusans (1796). Hero and Leander followed in 1798. Taillasson’s neo-classicism differed from the severity of David’s by cultivating a “dramatic sentimentality” inspired by the theater. He wrote judicious commentary on the work of other painters and he gave an important series of lectures on Watteau—not being nearly so eager as some to overthrow his artistic predecessors. A poetic treatise he wrote in 1785 “shows that he was one of the few artists to affirm the primacy of emotion, in reaction against the concept of ideal beauty, and to defend the plurality of genres and the truth of expression. His work marked the transition from classicism to Romanticism” (Mouilleseaux 238-39).

The “dramatic sentimentality” for which Taillasson remains known today is self-evident in Hero and Leander. The dramatic tableau is what you might imagine if you had zoomed in on one of Vernet’s highly emotive shipwreck scenes (complete with dramatic rocks and a massive tower). This outline engraving necessarily loses much of the color and strength of Taillasson’s 1798 painting (see fig. 1, in which Hero’s see-through golden dress and flowing rose-colored fabric against the sky set off the pallor of Leander’s exposed body). None of the theatricality of her gesture, however, is lost in the engraving. In addition to such ancient literary sources for his subject as Musée, Ovid, and Virgil, Taillasson was also influenced by the overt sentimentality of late-eighteenth century English poets and novelists (Lacambre 617-18).

cat 167 fig 1.JPG

Fig. 1. Jean-Joseph Taillasson. Hero and Leander, oil on canvas, 1798. Fine Arts Museum of Bordeaux.

The commentary that accompanied the engraving in the Historic Gallery strikes a poignant tone that would be fully appropriate for one of Vernet’s shipwreck scenes. After summarizing how Hero and Leander, living on the opposite sides of the Hellespont, fell so desperately in love that he swam across the Strait to meet her in secret, the commentator continues in these measured words: “Hero lighted every night a torch, which she placed on the top of a tower. Guided by this beacon, Leander was accustomed to swim across the sea by night to meet his mistress, whom he left before break of day. This voyage was frequently successful; but, a violent tempest rising, Leander, for seven successive days, could not quit Abydos. The ardour of his passion not suffering him any longer to await the return of a calm, he committed himself to the agitated waves; when, his strength abandoning him, his body was found thrown by the billows on the shores of the Sestos. Hero wandering there, full of terror and inquietude, recognized her lover, whose death she determined not to survive, and immediately precipitated herself into the sea. The moment chosen by the artist is that in which Hero discovers her lover extended upon the beach” (HG 3, n. p.).

Young Melville was already making Hero and Leander his own in Mardi, the novel he published in 1849 before his first visit to the picture galleries of London and the Continent. In chapter 38 his description of phosphorescent fish of the sea slips into this charming aside: “A French naturalist maintains, that the nocturnal radiance of the fire-fly is purposely intended as an attraction to the opposite sex; that the artful insect illuminates its body for a beacon to love. Thus: perched upon the edge of a leaf, and waiting for the approach of her Leander, who comes buffeting with his wings the aroma of the flowers, some insect Hero may show a torch to her gossamer gallant.” After that sweet moment, the main narrative resumes with these words: “But alas, thrice alas, for the poor little fire-fish of the sea, whose radiance but reveals them to their foes, and lights the way to their destruction” (NN M 123-24). This mock-heroic digression was already preparing for the passage, only two years later, in the “Sphynx” chapter of Moby-Dick, in which Ahab declares, “Oh Nature, and O soul or man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind” (NN MD 312).

On his voyage to the eastern rim of the Mediterranean in 1856, Melville thought of Hero and Leander again when he entered the Hellespont on December 10 on the way from Thessaly to Constantinople. Among the landmarks he noted in his diary were “Cape Sestos & Abydos—a long swim had Leander” (NN J 57). He also noted the ancient site of “Xerxes’s bridge-piers” and “the mouth of the Granicus,” the site of Alexander’s victory over the ancient Persians as depicted in the outline engraving Melville acquired of Le Brun’s Battle of the Granicus (CAT 155). For Melville himself, whether contemplating “fire-fish” in the South Seas or sites of ancient romance or warfare along the Hellespont, “not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.” As he built his print collection alongside his book collection during the last two decades of his life, remembering all the people and places he had known, Hazlitt’s lasting trinity of “books, pictures, and the face of nature” continued to speak to him in ever-varying combinations of active contemplation.