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Sperm Whaling Scene (Pêche du Cachalot. Cachelot Fishery)

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CAT 170. Frédéric Martens after Ambroise-Louis Garneray. Sperm Whaling Scene (Pêche du Cachalot. Cachelot Fishery). Paris: 1834. Courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Ambroise-Louis Garneray’s Sperm Whaling Scene is another print from Melville’s collection whose location is currently unknown. The memorandum book kept by Herman’s wife Elizabeth indicates that “Whale Pictures” by Garneray were among the furnishings of the house on East 26th Street in New York. A note by their daughter Frances adds: “Gave to the Seaman’s Institute New York” (where they have not since been located). Elizabeth Shaw Melville included this further information about “Ambroise Louis Garnery” in her memorandum book: “French painter—son of Jean Francois Garnery—Painted marine subjects and battles—Battle of Naverino & also published a pictorial work on the Ports and Coasts of France” (Sealts, Early Lives, 176, 251n57).

Herman Melville’s famous tribute to Garneray appears in chapter 56 of Moby-Dick: ”By far the finest . . . presentations of whales and whaling scenes to be anywhere found, are two large French engravings, well executed, and taken from paintings by one Garnery. Respectively, they represent attacks on the Sperm Whale and Right Whale. In the first engraving a Noble Sperm Whale is depicted in full majesty of might, just risen beneath the boat from the profundities of the ocean, and bearing high in the air upon his back the terrific wreck of the stoven planks. The prow of the boat is partially unbroken, and is drawn just balancing upon the monster’s spine; and standing in that prow, for that one single incomputable flash of time, you behold an oarsman, half shrouded by the incensed boiling spout of the whale, and in the act of leaping, as if from a precipice. The action of the whole thing is wonderfully good and true” (NN MD 266). Other telling details for readers of Moby-Dick include the birds hovering high above the action, the sharp teeth of the sperm whale’s lower jaw, and the whale line still coiled in the tub floating near the side of the whale.

Ambroise-Louis Garneray (1783-1857) was born in Paris one year after his father Jean-Françoise had become one of the earliest pupils of Jacques-Louis David. While the father painted many important portraits during the Revolution and in its wake, the son took to sea as an apprentice in the French navy at age thirteen. After serving as a corsair on French privateers that fought the English in the Indian Ocean, and then closer to home, Garneray served on trading ships during the short period of the Peace of Amiens. Soon after returning to maritime warfare against the English, he was captured and confined to “a prison-ship” in Portsmouth from 1806 until the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. During his captivity, Garneray learned English and was commissioned to paint portraits. After returning to France, he began exhibiting maritime scenes, took lessons in aquatint, and became the official painter of the French navy. By 1823 Garneray had published a series of views of the French coast. In 1827 he was “sent to Greece to paint a work commemorating the Battle of Navarino” at which French, British, and Russian forces defeated the Ottomon Turks and Egyptians during the Greek War of Independence. That painting was exhibited at the Salon of 1831 and entered the collection of the Château of Versailles (Whiteley 153; see fig. 1). 

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Figure 1. Ambroise-Louis Garneray. Battle of Navarino, oil on canvas, c. 1827-1829. Museum of the History of France, Château de Versailles.

When Melville visited Versailles in 1849, he wrote: “A most magnificent & incredible affair altogether. Splendid paintings of battles” (NN J 33). Two years later in Moby-Dick he concluded his tribute to Garneray’s whaling scenes with these words: “The French are the lads for painting action. Go and gaze upon all the paintings of Europe, and where will you find such a gallery of living and breathing commotion on canvas, as in that triumphal hall at Versailles; where the beholder fights his way, pell-mell, through the consecutive great battles of France; where every sword seems a flash of the Northern Lights, and the successive armed kings and Emporers dash by, like a charge of crowned centaurs? Not wholly unworthy of a place in that gallery, are these sea battle-pieces of Garnery” (NN MD 266-67).

In addition to his careers as a sailor and painter, Garneray published maritime adventure stories including Corsaire de la République, Le Négrier de Zanzibar, and Un Corsaire au bagne.