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The Battle of the Granicus

CAT 155 Busby Le Brun Battle of the Granicus BA 126 Recto.jpg

CAT 155. T. L. Busby after Charles Le Brun. The Battle of the Granicus. London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1808. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Since Melville’s copy of Busby’s engraving includes the printed title, The Battle of the Granicus, it is interesting that Melville also wrote the word “Granicus” in its upper margin. The commentary in the Historic Gallery summarizes the historical context in which Alexander the Great arrived on the banks of the Granicus River with “the Persian cavalry” massed across its “widest part” on the other side. After describing the boldness of Alexander’s strategy to attack immediately, not the next morning, overcoming “every obstacle that awaited him” until he became “master of the field,” the commentator describes the painting by Le Brun that Busby had engraved: “The picture of the pass of the Granicus is painted on canvas—it is sixteen feet high, by thirty wide. It was ordered by Louis XIV to decorate the Gallery of Apollo at the Louvre. The action is represented with great spirit, the movements are noble and animated, the drawing in a grand style, and the groups artistically distributed. The disorder of the battle is well expressed, but without confusion. Alexander preserves, in the hour of danger, the calmness of a hero accustomed to victory” (HG 4: n.p.).

Melville’s copy of Busby’s outline engraving, and any verbal description he may have encountered of this celebrated painting, would have been enriched by having seen the painting itself at the Louvre as a young man in 1849 (fig. 1):

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Fig. 1. Charles Le Brun, The Battle of the Granicus, oil on canvas, 1665. The Louvre.

Melville’s copy of the print on which he wrote “Granicus” not only gave him an English engraver’s view of the painting in which Le Brun projected the grandeur of young Louis XIV by pictorial association with one of Alexander the Great’s greatest victories. Busby’s outline engraving also supplemented, within Melville’s print collection, the story of The Persians in the Greek play by Aeschylus as drawn by the English artist Flaxman and engraved by the French engraver Reveil. Whereas Flaxman had shown Darius’s invading Persian soldiers defeated by the Greeks at Salamis in 480 B.C. (CAT 4), Le Brun shows Alexander’s invading Greek soldiers defeating the Persians at Granicus in 334 B.C. Flaxman’s illustration of the dream of the Queen of the Persians in the absence of her son Xerxes (CAT 3) is matched by Le Brun’s image of Queens of Persia subduing themselves to a magnanimous Alexander in the painting also known as The Tent of Darius (for an English-language account of Le Brun’s intentions and achievement in his Battles of Alexander the Great series, see Gareau, 196-213). In December 1856, Melville sailed past "the mouth of the Granicus" and the site of "Xerxes' bridge piers" on his way to the Sea of Marmora and Constantinople (NN J 57). 

Melville would have seen a battle scene from much earlier in Le Brun’s career at the Dulwich Gallery in London a few weeks before he arrived at the Louvre in 1849. Le Brun painted Horatius Cocles Defending the Bridge (c. 1642-46) when still in Rome with Poussin. Melville does not include this work in the journal entry in which he declares that the Dulwich Gallery is “full of gems—Titians, Claudes, Salvators, Murillos” (NN J 20). Hazlitt, however, does mention Cocles Defending the Bridge in the essay on the Dulwich Gallery that Melville owned. “We do not like this picture, nor the Massacre of the Innocents, by the same artist. One reason is that they are French, and another that they are not good. They have great merit, it is true, but their merits are only splendid sins. They are mechanical, mannered, colourless, unfeeling” (Criticisms on Art, 35-36). 

Hazlitt did have high praise for another French painting in the Dulwich Gallery that at the time was much less appreciated. It was not a battle scene or history painting of the kind then in vogue. It was a “dark landscape” over “in the corner” of a room, and it pictured nothing more than “trees in the fore-ground, with a paved road and buildings in the distance.” Yet “the Genius of antiquity might well wander here, and feel itself at home” (Criticisms, 34). This was Poussin’s Roman Road of 1648, the companion painting of the Landscape with a Man washing his Feet at a Fountain that Melville acquired, and framed, in the engraving by Pether (see CAT 143, fig. 1).

For an entirely different view of Le Brun in relation to Melville, see the crayon sketch of La Marquise de Brinvilliers on her Way to Execution in MBB 3.3.

Charles Le Brun
(CAT 155) The Battle of the Granicus