CAT 121. Etching by Claude Lorrain. Le Port de mer à la grosse tour (Harbour with a large tower), c. 1641. In A Collection of Original Etchings. London: J. McCreery, 1816. Osborne Collection of Melville Materials at Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas.
Melville’s copy of Le Port de mer à la grosse tour is one of five prints now in the Osborne Collection in Texas that were not exhibited or cataloged in 1985 because of stains and other disfigurements that rendered them unsightly. It is also one of three prints among those five that bears no information as to its artist, engraver, title, publisher, city, or date. When received as part of the Osborne Collection in 1985, it was thought to be “a print of engraving by J. M. W. Turner (scene of three men with bundles on shore / ship).” It is in fact a print both drawn and etched by Claude Lorrain himself, one of 45 prints that Claude etched with his own hand (Mannocci, no. 39). Mannocci dates the etching c. 1641 and relates it to Claude’s oil painting Harbor Scene with large tower, which has itself been lost, but which Claude documented in a 1637 drawing for his Liber Veritatis (Seaport with a large tower, LS 17). That drawing, in reverse, became the subject for this etching. This is one of six etchings that Mannocci classifies within Claude’s finest period as an etcher, between 1639 and 1641, in which his images are “effortlessly accomplished, almost ‘polished,’ in comparison with the earlier etchings” (pp. 238-43, 21).
Claude had etched these plates for a series that appears not to have been published in his lifetime. Early states of this image include the number 9 just inside the left margin. That number has been sliced away in the copy that Melville owned. That is because Melville’s copy of the print appears to be one of those that was published (with this small alteration) from Claude’s original plate in London in 1816 in J. McCreery’s Collection of Original Etchings. This etching was one of “25 ORIGINAL PLATES by CLAUDE” among the 200 prints in McCreery’s publication (which was so popular that it was soon reprinted several times). Mannocci surmises that the plates from which McCreery printed the etchings by Claude were in such good condition because a project for which Claude was presumably assembling his etchings during the height of his popularity in Rome was never published (26-27, 20-22). Gustav Lorenzen, the first scholar to discuss the actual Claude etchings as reproduced in McCreery’s 1816 volume, found them to be “extraordinarily good impressions” in which “surprisingly little was lost” from the few impressions made from the same plates during Claude’s lifetime (166-68).
Sometime between 1816 when McCreery printed Le Port de mer à la grosse tour from Claude’s plate, and 1985, when Melville’s copy of the etching arrived at Southwestern University as part of the Osborne Collection, the print had become heavily stained along the lower margin of the backing paper to which it was affixed and had suffered severe abrasions along the left margin. It is currently impossible to know whether this occurred before, during, or after Melville’s ownership of the print. Once its visual and historical value as an original etching by Claude Lorrain was determined, however, Duncan Osborne, who had loaned this and eight other prints to the Osborne Collection at the University, arranged for it to be restored to its present condition in which it can be reproduced and, if the occasion offers, exhibited. The physical history of Claude’s vision of this harbor scene can therefore quickly be summarized like this: the original oil painting of the scene, now lost, was copied by Claude in the 1637 drawing that became the basis of the etching that he made c. 1641 but which was not published until 1816, when McCreery (or one of his immediate successors) printed the etching that Herman Melville acquired sometime before his death in 1891, after which it passed down through four generations of his direct descendents into the archive in which it now resides, newly restored from the various kinds of damage it had suffered since McCreery had printed it from Claude’s original plate.
So much for some of the “physical” meaning of this print. Its “mental” meaning for Melville would probably have started with the pictorial, the image of the men moving bales on the shore as goods are being delivered to and from the tall ship at the far right, while before and behind the large tower on the left an open boat and a large ship are sitting in dry dock. The action is spacious and free, with many smaller and larger boats floating on the embracing bay, a distant tower on a far hill providing an enhanced sense of scale. This is the essence of the classic Claudean harbor scene, a formula that Claude returned to again and again in paintings, drawings, and etchings, moving his men, bales, ships, towers, bays, and mountains into new positions while preserving the same sense of hard work and honest commerce in the open air.
Early in his writing career Melville would undoubtedly have enjoyed an etching like this as a former sailor. After the American Civil War, he would have enjoyed it during his two decades as a waterfront customs inspector. As a print collector, he would have enjoyed this etching in relation to other harbor scenes he collected by Claude Lorrain (CAT 124-127), Vernet (CAT 163), and Goldstein (CAT 252), as well as those by Van de Velde, Clevely, Callcott, Stanfield, Turner, and Farrer (CAT numbers to be assigned).
Melville acquired an excellent supplement to his etching of Claude’s Harbour with a Large Tower in the 1871 English translation of Georges Duplessis’s The Wonders of Engraving that he gave to his wife Elizabeth in 1875 (Sealts no. 195). Although Claude was primarily a painter who “only used the needle occasionally,” Duplessis declares that whenever he did “employ” the etching needle “he produced masterpieces.” Duplessis reproduced Claude’s etching of the harbor scene Sunrise in support of his assertion that Claude Lorrain, “whether he be considered as a painter or engraver . . . is the greatest interpreter of nature the world has ever produced” (252-53; see MBB 3.1).