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Naufrage. A Shipwreck

CAT 163 Byrne after Vernet Naufrage BA 228.jpg

CAT 163. John Byrne after Claude-Joseph Vernet. Naufrage. A Shipwreck. Engraved for The Collection of Pictures of the Most Noble the Marquis of Stafford. London: 1818. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Vernet painted the Naufrage from which Melville’s engraving was made in 1759 (Ingersoll-Smouse, no. 716, fig. 170). Melville’s father may have seen the original painting in the Marquise of Stafford’s Gallery during his visit to London in 1818, the year in which the colored engraving now at the Berkshire Athenaeum was published as A Shipwreck in the catalog of that collection (Wallace 1992a, p. 31). John Byrne (1786-1847) was a painter, watercolorist, and engraver who specialized in engraving aquatints which have the look of watercolors. In addition to the A Shipwreck now at the Berkshire Athenaeum, he engraved Vernet’s Sunrise for The Collection of Pictures of the Most Noble the Marquis of Stafford (Arlaud, nos. 78 and 79, p. 25; see also Ottley). Engravings from the Stafford Collection were sold as prints, India proofs, or colored and mounted.

Byrne’s elegant engraving of Vernet’s tragic, tempestuous Naufrage conveys those essential qualities for which Vernet’s shipwreck scenes were highly praised by Diderot and others when exhibited at the Salon in Paris in the 1760s: “the Salon critics loved to describe the actions and gestures of the figures on seashores or doomed in wrecks, who were helpless pawns in these elemental dramas. . . . The horror of his shipwrecks gave precisely that aesthetic pleasure to be had from safe contemplation of disorder and misfortune” (Conisbee 333).

This English aquatint of Vernet’s shipwreck scene would have been very much in the taste of Herman’s father Allan Melvill, who had resided in Paris in 1802, visited London in 1818, and imported elegant goods from France while raising his young family as a merchant in New York City in the 1820s. One wonders if this engraving was one of the real-life inspirations for the passage in which the fictional Redburn declares that “we had several oil-paintings and rare old engravings of my father’s, which he himself had bought in Paris, hanging up in the dining room.” The two paintings that Redburn describes “were sea-pieces.” One resembles the Vernet engraving in placing its foreground figures against “a high French-like land,” the other in featuring “old-fashioned French men-of-war” sailing “at a fearful angle” (NN R 6).  Whether Melville inherited the engraving of Vernet’s Shipwreck from his father or acquired it himself,  he could see in it two striking elements of “The Lee-Shore” as he described them in Moby-Dick: (1) the plight of “the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land” and (2) and the result when “one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through” (NN MD 106).

The beauty of Vernet’s Shipwreck scene, yet the disaster which it depicts, would have had added irony for Melville in the light of his own father’s financial disasters and sudden death when Herman was only a boy (a fate Redburn shared with his own Francophile merchant father). The untitled aquatint engraving by Byrne, under which Melville wrote “Vernet” in his own hand, would have carried strong emotional, as well as pictorial associations. Vernet’s ship struggling against the winds that would destroy it on the shore symbolized all too clearly plight of the Herman’s family after his father died, leaving the survivors make what they could of the wreckage left behind.

Melville had considerable information about Vernet easily at hand in the copy of The Works of Eminent Masters that he acquired in 1871 (Sealts no. 564). A ten-page essay on Vernet declares that the young painter first saw “his real master—the sea” from “the top of a mountain” near Marseilles. Continuing on from Marseilles to Rome, the young painter encountered the storm at sea during which “he had himself lashed to the mainmast” so as to feel, and see, its full force. His mature tempest scenes differ from those of most painters in their emphasis on “the misfortunes of man.” Whereas “the sea plays the principal part” in tempest scenes by the leading Dutch painters, those by Vernet “were composed for the purpose of making the cords of the human passions vibrate within us . . . He only excites the sea in order to excite in us terror, or compassion for the sailor in peril.” One way of doing this is to place his windblown sailors or despairing observers against lee-shore rocks. “By placing objects that resist the wind by the side of others that yield to it, he gave his scenes a variety of movement which imparted to them an appearance of life” (“Joseph Vernet,” 2: 49-52).

Two of the seven engravings that illustrate the essay in Works reproduce lee-shore shipwreck scenes by Vernet similar to the one in the engraving that Melville collected (see MBB 3.4). The essay begins with an engraved portrait of Vernet exuding the geniality for which the painter was known in his personal life. Two of the others would have recalled Melville own travels along the Italian coast in 1857. The engraving of Vernet’s View of the Environs of Citta Nuova would have reminded him of his views of the Calabrian coast as a steamer carried him from Messina to Naples in mid-February. The engraving of Vernet’s View of Pausilippo (fig. 1) provided a shoreline view, looking in toward the city, of the locale he visited twice while in Naples and featured in his unpublished poem “An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba” (see CAT 120). The essay in Melville’s copy of Works noted the influence of Claude Lorrain and Salvatore Rosa on Vernet’s subjects and style during his residence in Italy and indicated that the Louvre, five years after Melville’s visit in 1849, had twenty-seven paintings by Vernet in “one of its chambers,” surrounding “a white marble bust” of Vernet “on a pedestal” (“Joseph Vernet,” 2: 49, 53, 61, 57).

CAT 163 fig 1 vernet's posilippo in Works Houghton.jpg

Fig. 1. Joseph Vernet. View of Posilippo. In Herman Melville’s copy of The Works of Eminent Masters. London: John Cassell, 1854. Houghton Library, Harvard University, f AC85 M4977 Zz854w.

Hazlitt does not discuss Vernet’s Shipwreck in the essay on “The Marquis of Stafford’s Gallery” in the copy of Criticisms on Art that Melville acquired in 1870 (Sealts no. 263a). But he opens that essay, in a series of passages marked by Melville, that speak directly to the kind of emotional associations that Byrne’s aquatint of that painting might have had for Herman himself. Hazlitt begins the essay by declaring that “Our intercourse with the dead is better than our intercourse with the living.” Melville marked the next two sentences with two marginal lines and underlined the words underlined here: “There are only three pleasures in life, pure and lasting, and all derived from inanimate things—books, pictures, and the face of nature. What is the world but a heap of ruined friendships, but the grave of love” (Criticisms, 40).

After Hazlitt devotes two paragraphs to the imperishable and unchanging beauty of Titian’s Bath of Diana and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, ” Melville draws two marginal lines alongside a passage in which Hazlitt reiterates his earlier theme: “Oh, thou then, whoever you are, that does seek happiness in yourself, independent of others, not subject to caprice, not mocked by insult, not snatched away by ruthless hands, over which Time itself has not power, and that Death cancels, seek it (if thou are wise) in books, in pictures, and in the face of nature, for these alone we may count on as friends for life” (Criticisms, 41; MMO).

It is not surprising that Melville marked those two passages in the essay on “The Marquis of Stafford’s Gallery” he acquired in 1870. By then, after losing his bankrupt, possibly delirious father at age 11 in 1832; and then his high-achieving older brother Gansevoort to a sudden illness in 1846, and then his own son Malcolm by suicide in 1867, Melville was in deeper need of lasting solace from books, pictures, and the face of nature than he had ever been. With his career as novelist over, and any success as an ambitious poet highly uncertain, his growing library of books and collection of prints were to be increasingly essential in maintaining the imaginative buoyancy he managed to sustain for the last two decades of his life.

Like Vernet in his maritime paintings, Melville on the imaginative side of his emotional life continued to find a Sunrise for every Shipwreck, leaving his ongoing literary lifework still afloat at the time of his death. Thanks to his widow Elizabeth, their daughter Frances, and her daughters Frances, Eleanor, Katharine, and Jeanette, much of the pictorial legacy of his imaginative life survives for us today.