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Chapter 3

Three Centuries of French Painting

Melville’s interest in French art cannot be separated from Italian subjects. The two most prominent French artists in his collection, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, were long resident in Italy and drew many of their subjects from its pictorial present and cultural past. These two seventeenth-century artists were prominent among the other French artists in Melville’s collection both for the number of prints that he owned (15 after Claude, 8 after Poussin) and for the number that he framed (at least two after each). In addition to prints after Claude and Poussin, Melville also collected an impressive range of other French painters and engravers from three successive centuries: seventeenth-century artists (including Bosse and Pérelle), eighteenth-century masters (with especially striking images after Watteau, Boucher, and Vernet), the Revolutionary period (with political and literary themes), and nineteenth-century artists (from Garneray and Meissonier to Manet).

Melville did not travel as extensively in France as he had in Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. His only physical visit to France was in 1849, when he crossed the English Channel to Boulogne on November 27 and resided in Paris for ten days, including a day trip to Versailles, before departing for Brussels on December 7. At the Louvre he ran the “painted gauntlet of the gods” whose impact he was still feeling three years later in Pierre (NN P 350). During the “three hours” he spent at the Louvre, Melville saw “heaps of treasures of all sorts.” These included, beyond the paintings, the “admirable collection of antique statuary,” which “beats the British Museum.” He saw many treasures at the Louvre in 1849 that William Hazlitt and Melville’s own father could not have seen 1801-02; many masterworks that had been acquired during Napoleon’s conquests remained, though some had been returned to their home countries (NN J 31).

In addition to the celebrated Old Masters at the Louvre, Melville saw a “fine gallery of modern French school” at the Luxembourg Museum. At the “Bilbiotheque Royale” he “looked over plates of Albert Durer & Holbein” and examinded Persian and Coptic manuscripts. He found Versailles to be “a most magnificent & incredible affair altogether,” noting in particular its “splendid paintings of battles” and the “grand suite of rooms of Louis Le Grand.” Melville took special note of “Titan overthrown by the Thunderbolts,” the painting by Veronese that Napoleon had brought back from Italy as an ornament for the ceiling of the royal bedroom (fig. 1). This painting, now known as Jupiter Punishing the Vices, was transferred to the Louvre shortly after Melville’s 1849 visit (NN J 33, 346). The unearthly erotic tension of this overhead composition was a striking contrast to the tenderness of Veronese’s Mary Magdalen anointing the Feet of our Saviour that Melville was to see two weeks later in the private gallery of Samuel Rogers in London (CAT 110, figs. 3, 7).

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Figure 1. Veronese. Jupiter Punishing the Vices, 1556. The Louvre, Paris.

Melville’s interest in France and its visual culture had long preceded his visit to the country itself, beginning in his childhood home. His description of Redburn’s fictional home in Redburn no doubt reflects the taste with which Herman’s own merchant father, an importer of goods from France, had furnished the family home in New York. In Redburn’s words, “we had several oil-paintings and rare engravings of my father’s, which he himself had bought in Paris, hanging up in the dining-room.” These were supplemented by “two large green French portfolios of colored prints” that Redburn and his siblings would “gaze at” every Saturday morning “with never-failing delight” (NN R 6). But the prints that Melville collected related not only to the visual culture of the France absorbed by his father in 1801 and himself in 1849. They also reflected developments in the pictorial worlds of both Paris and New York during the decades in which Herman was building his own print collection on East 26th Street.      

Several of the prints Melville acquired were published in the 1870s and 1880s by L’Art and the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The copy he acquired of Manet’s etching of The Soldier Boy gave visual him access to one of the first Impressionist paintings to be seen in New York, where it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1885 and acquired by the New York Metropolitan Museum in 1889 (fig. 2).

CAT 120 intro fig 2 Manet Boy with a Sword NY Met.jpg

Figure 2. Edouard Manet. Boy with a Sword, oil on canvas, 1861. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edwin Davis, 1889.

I have catalogued several prints in previous chapters that could have been catalogued here: della Bella’s Esclave tenant un chameu par la bride was published in Paris in 1649 (CAT 68), and Reveil’s engravings after Flaxman’s Les Persians and after Dante’s La Purgatoire were published in Paris in 1833 (CAT 2-5 and 80-102). National boundaries, like pictorial subjects and printmaking techniques, were very fluid in Melville’s print collection—as they were, to be sure, in his mind. Claude Lorrain, for example, was a French painter who specialized in Italian subjects. Yet he was first claimed as a great painter not by France or by Italy but by England. This, too, Melville’s collection shows.

Chapter 3