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Parting Thought on Claude Lorrain

Early in his career Melville had written of a maritime scene in Mardi that “one of Claude’s setting summer suns would have glorified the whole” (NN M 42). In “The Wilderness” of Clarel twenty-seven years later, he provided a sophisticated allusion, both dramatic and atmospheric, to one of Claude’s least-known works without mentioning the painter’s name (CAT 135). Melville does mention Claude’s name in the canto on “The Banker,” a bit earlier in the same “Wilderness” section of Clarel. Rolfe, meditating on the discomfort of the banker who has stumbled into this harsh landscape of physical and spiritual trial, imagines the shock this “nabob” would feel if he “Lighted on Holbein’s Dance of Death / Sly slipped among his prints from Claude” (NN C 2.12.28-31). One image from Holbein’s Dance of Death that Melville is certain to have known is The Duchess, illustrated as figure 4 in his copy of The Wonders of Engraving by Georges Duplessis (Sealts no. 195; see MBB 1.3).

Now we can imagine Holbein’s Dance of Death “sly slipped” among fifteen of Melville’s own “prints from Claude.” The most obvious kind of contrast would be to slip it next to one of Claude’s most harmonious and uncomplicated pastoral or seaport scenes, such as Le Berger Galant (CAT 132) or View of a Seaport during a Sun-set (CAT 124). The effect would be somewhat more complicated if you slipped the “Dance of Death” next to the early landscape of Cephalus and Procris Reunited by Diana, whose dead trees crossing each other immediately behind the reunited lovers seem to foretell their tragic fate (CAT 130). Still more indirect yet would be to slip it next to the last version Claude painted of that same subject, in which the viewer must know the denouement of the entire story that Apulius told in order to have a strong sense of foreboding simply from the unprecedented presence of Diana in this scene (CAT 129). Yet what, actually, one might ask, are Claude’s four variations on the story of Cephalus and Procris over a thirty-year period other than his own kind of “Dance of Death?”

The ultimate in subtlety, in the context of Clarel itself, might be to slip “Holbein’s Dance of Death” right next to Claude’s Landscape—Christ Tempted (CAT 135). That juxtaposition contracts into two contrasting visions the essential mortal and moral challenges faced by Clarel, the young divinity student who is the protagonist of the poem. One wonders if Melville may have gotten the idea of slipping the Dance of Death “among his prints by Claude” from his copy of The Wonders of Engraving by Georges Duplessis (Sealts no. 195). Among the illustrations in that book, Lützelburger’s engraving from Holbein’s Dance of Death is followed by Claude’s etching of his own glorious Sunrise (see MBB 1.3, and MBB 3.1).


Melville’s interest in Claude Lorrain extended far beyond the fifteen prints he collected or the passages in books he collected that referred directly to those prints or paintings. That interest extended throughout his career as a writer. In the 1845 edition of Hazlitt’s Table Talk that he inherited after the sudden death of his brother Gansevoort in 1846, Herman marked with a blue crayon, in the second half of the opening essay “On the Pleasure of Painting,” the passage about the traveler who “turns aside to view a county-gentleman’s estate with eager looks, thinking it may contain some of the rich products of art. There is an air round Lord Radnor’s park, for there hang the two Claudes, the Morning and the Evening of the Roman Empire” (Cowen 5:498-99).

Melville made many more marks in the copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms of Art that he acquired in 1870 (Sealts no. 263a). These have all been displayed and transcribed in Melville’s Marginalia Online. We have already discussed and provided links to some of those pertaining to individual paintings by Claude Lorrain, so here we will sample only a few of Melville markings that address Claude’s artistry in a more general way. In the essay on the “Pictures at Wilton,” Hazlitt conveys the pleasure he felt when actually seeing “the two famous Claudes” owned by Lord Radnor, the Morning and Evening of the Roman Empire. Hazlitt does not consider these to be Claude’s most accomplished landscapes. But the attempt simply to describe the skill with which Claude has depicted the cattle on the Evening canvas leads Hazlitt to a generalization that inspires Melville’s first underline on this page: “so precise is the touch, so firm the pencilling, so classical the outline, that they give you the idea of sculptured cattle, biting the short green turf, and seem an enchanted herd! They appear stamped on the canvas to remain there forever, as if nothing could root them from the spot. Truth with beauty suggests the feeling of immortality” (Hazlitt, Criticisms, p. 105; MMO 263a, 105.14-15).

Hazlitt tries to explain the intensity of the feeling described above by confessing that he has “never felt a longing, a sickness of heart, to see a Dutch landscape twice,” in spite of the virtues of Dutch realism. “But those of Claude, after an absence of years, have the effect, and produce a kind of calenture.” Melville underlined the word calenture. He then put a check mark and drew a marginal line alongside this explanation by Hazlitt: “The reason of the difference is that, in mere literal copies from nature, where the objects are not interesting in themselves, the only attraction is to see the felicity of the execution; and, having once witnessed this, we are satisfied. But there is nothing to stir the fancy, to keep alive the yearnings of passion” (Hazlitt, pp. 105-06; MMO 263a, 105.26-31 and 106.1; this link shows both sets of markings on page 105,

Hazlitt was disappointed with many of the paintings he saw in the collection at Burleigh House, so he wondered if he was becoming too fastidious and hard to please. But disappointment in some paintings only increases appreciation of those that are of superlative worth. Hazlitt is sorry to say that “there are two Claudes at Burleigh, which certainly do not come up to the celebrity of the artist’s name.” But this only brings to mind “other works by the same hand . . . surpassing every idea the mind could form of art, except by seeing them.” And it inspires these two sentences alongside which Melville draws a marginal line: “The name of Claude has alone something in it that softens and harmonizes the mind. It touches a magic chord.” Hazlitt follows those sentences with this rhapsodic one: “Oh! matchless scenes, oh! orient skies, bright with purple and gold; ye opening glades and distant sunny veils, glittering with fleecy flocks, pour your enchantment into my soul, let it reflect your chastened image, and forget all meaner things” (Criticisms, pp. 122-23; MMO 263a, 122.24-26).

Melville shared Hazlitt’s instinctive ability to value that which most moved his soul. The fifteen prints he collected, reproducing diverse genres in Claude’s oeuvre over the whole course of Claude’s career and utilizing varied printmaking techniques from Claude’s own etchings up through the evolution of copper-plate and steel-plate engravings in both England and France, show that his eye and mind  were continuously engaged in psychologically satisfying and culturally significant work.

After the quick cruise through the above parting thoughts about Melville as a reader, writer, collector, and annotator of materials relating to Claude Lorrain, I would like to end this section with one passage of poetry Melville left unpublished at his death, followed by two items from Melville’s copy of Dullea’s book on Claude.

The poetry is from the brief appearance of Claude Lorrain among those more voluble Old Master painters who populate and dominate the debate about the picturesque in painting in Melville’s unfinished poem “At the Hostelry.” Claude is invited to speak by Swanevelt, his fellow landscape painter and sometime housemate who has himself declared that

“For me, I take to Nature’s scene
Some scene select, set off serene
With any crumbling thing you please—
A crumbling tower, a shepherd piping,
My master, sure, with this agrees.”

Swanevelt then directly appealed to Claude to speak,

But he, the mildest tempered swain,
And eke discreetest too, too, may be,
That ever came out from Lorraine
To lose himself in Arcady,
(Sweet there to be lost, as some have been,
And find oneself in losing e’en),
To Claude no pastime, none, nor gain
Wavering in theory’s wildering maze;
Better he likes, though sunny he,
To haunt the Arcadian woods in haze,
Intent shy charms to win or ensnare,
Beauty his Daphne, he the pursuer there.

So naught he said, whate’er he felt,
Yet friendly nodded to Swanevelt. (NN BBO 154)

Dullea includes at the end of his book on Claude the will in which the painter declared his wish to be buried “in the church of the Trinita de’ Monte,” the Roman church in which he was in fact buried after his death in 1682. When that church, like many others, was “ravaged and ransacked by the French troops in 1798,” the inscription that had been placed near his grave had disappeared and his “burial-place . . . remained unmarked. At length, during that phase of French feeling which brought back the bones of Napoleon I from St. Helena, it was determined to remove [Claude’s] remains to the French national church of San Luigi, near the Pantheon.” This resulted in a monument to Claude that was installed in the nave of that church in 1836 (Dullea, pp. 84-85, Apppendix A). This was the church in which young Domenichino in the 1610s had frescoed the five Scenes from the Life of Saint Cecilia that helped to initiate the Seventeenth-Century Roman Classical style that was to remain dominant through much of Claude’s career. From the 1630s all the way through to Christ Tempted in 1676, Claude Lorrain was to be expanding and crystallizing the landscape element of Domenichino’s pictorial style (see the “Saint Cecilia” and “Landscape” sections of CAT 112).

My final item from the book Dullea published in 1887 is from Appendix C, a comprehensive “List of Pictures by Claude in Public and Private Collections.” The American section consisted of only one entry, for the Vanderbilt Collection, which owned one seaport and three landscapes by Claude. The Metropolitan Museum was founded in 1870 and held its first exhibition in 1872 but its first painting by Claude Lorrain did not enter its collection until 1925. Realizing there was no public space in America in which to see actual paintings by Claude Lorrain during Melville’s lifetime makes the fifteen judiciously selected prints that he acquired as an amateur collector with limited financial resources all the more impressive.

For a thoughtful overview of Melville’s appreciation of Claude’s artistry during his life as a traveler and author, as a book collector and print collector, and as a student of the picturesque, see Tamarkin, “Melville with Pictures,” 171-84.