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).