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Hercules restoring Alcestis to her Husband

CAT 168 Sands after Taillasson Hercules restoring Alcestis to her Husband BA 81.jpg

CAT 168. Sands after Taillasson. Hercules restoring Alcestis to her Husband. London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1809. Published in Historic Gallery of Portraits and Pictures, vol. 6, 1810. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

The 1810 commentary in the Historic Gallery neatly sums up the legend of Hercules and Alcestis as understood in England when Sands engraved the painting by Taillasson in 1809. The engraving depicts another strand of the adventures of the gods in Thessaly as Melville would have known them. “Apollo, banished from heaven, sought an asylum, for some time, with Admetus, king of Pheres, in Thessaly. In gratitude for the reception he had received, he became the tutelary deity of the house of that prince. Admetus was attacked by a mortal disease. Apollo snatched him from the fate which threatened him, upon condition that another person should become the devoted sacrifice. His wife, Alceste, presented herself as the only victim.  Proserpine, affected at the grief of Admetus, was desirous of restoring Alceste. This Pluto opposed. Hercules descended into hell, seized upon Alceste, and delivered her to her husband” (HG 6: n.p.). In the engraving, Hercules holds his war club with one hand as he lifts the veil with the other, presenting the restored Alcestis to Admetus.

Exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1804, six years after Hero and Leander, Hercules Restoring Alcestis to her Husband symbolizes a more hopeful period in French political life, Napoleon having restored order and national pride after the convulsions that had typified the reign of terror during the previous decade. Regnault had exhibited his own version of Hercules and Alcestis in 1799, the same year as his Death of Cleopatra. It too was engraved for the Historic Gallery, for the very first volume in 1807. Regnault depicts an earlier moment in which Hercules is carrying the not yet restored Alcestis out of the mouth of hell, his war club in one hand, her unclad female form held against his powerful torso by the other. At the Salon of 1804, Taillasson would complete the process of her restoration, setting her on the ground before her grateful husband.

The name of Alcestis appears in Melville’s writing when the narrator of White-Jacket warns the would-be sailor to “familiarize yourself with the story of the English frigate Alcestis and the French Medusa (NN WJ 32). In Battle Pieces, Melville alludes to Alcestis without using her name in “In the Turret (March 1862).” There he compares a sailor on the ironclad Monitor who descended beneath the sea in warfare’s first “diving bell” to Hercules (here called Alcides) when “groping into haunted hell / To bring forth Admetus’ bride” (NN PP 39). In Clarel Melville alludes to an earlier thread of the Admetus myth when he characterizes Vine by asking if he should “slave in Mammon’s mine? / Better Admetus’ shepherd lie” (NN C 1.29.19-20).

What does a writer like Hawthorne (Vine) or Melville do when inspiration has died or time has passed one by? One of Melville’s answers comes in “Timoleon,” the title poem of the collection he published a few months before his death in 1891. Timoleon was a hero to both Plutarch and Taillasson. A native of Corinth, he was excoriated by his mother and his fellow townsmen after saving them from his tyrant brother. Exiled to Syracuse, he saved that city from a tryrant and was honored into his old age, even when blind, by Syracusans who brought strangers to see him. This was the subject of Taillasson’s Timoleon and the Syracusans when exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1796. In that time and place, depictions of Timoleon were seen as a rebuke to the tyranny of Robespierre, whose followers had “quickly banned” Chénier’s tragedy of Timoléon as performed with music by Méhul in 1794 (Rosenblum, Transformations, 92-93).

In New York one century later, Melville depicted Timoleon as the “savior of the state, Jove’s soldier, man divine,” a heroic survivor now “reposed” in Syracuse as “the Isle’s loved guest.” After all the strife he had experienced as a younger man in his native Corinth, he, like Alcestis, had been restored, though on “an adopted shore” (NN PP 258).