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Le Loup et les Bergers

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CAT 172. Louis Marvy after Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. Le Loup et les Bergers. Published in 10 Eaux-Fortes, d'après Decamps, Paris: ca. 1847. Melville Society Archive, New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (1803-1860) was born in Paris but spent formative childhood years in the Picardy countryside. As a student of art he resisted the prevailing mode of Davidian neo-classicism and eventually found his métier through foreign travel to then exotic places. After traveling to Greece with Ambroise-Louis Garneray to document the Battle of Navarino, Decamps extended his travels “throughout Asia Minor and eastern North Africa, becoming the first major artist to travel extensively in the Near East.” Decamps exhibited orientalist paintings with great success at the Paris Salon throughout the 1830s. One of his major patrons was the Duc de Orléans and he received the Legion of Honor in 1839. Decamps created more than two thousand prints, drawings, and paintings over the course of his career and was honored with Ingres and Delacroix at the Exhibition Universelle de Paris in 1855 (Mosby 598-99; Benezit 2006, 4: 542). His portrait below was published in 1844 (fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Portrait of Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps published in L’Illustration, March 2, 1844.

Melville’s print of Le Loup et les Bergers appeared in Ten Etchings after Decamps a few years after the above portrait of Decamps was published (c. 1847). Each of the ten etchings was created by either Louis Marvy or Adolphe Masson (Moreau, nos, 56-65, pp. 82-85). Le Loup et les Bergers (no. 57, wrongly attributed by Moreau to Masson) was directly inspired by La Fontaine’s fable “The Wolf and the Shepherds,” a satirical attack on the hypocrisy of shepherds who condemn the murderousness of wolves while eating lambs themselves. Silhouetted high against the sky, the wolf looks down on the four shepherds who are roasting the lamb over a spit as their sheep cluster beyond the hill at the left. Decamps uses a complex combination of steep diagonals and distribution of light to draw the viewer to the exposed flesh over the open fire (before which the bright light on the exposed rump of the shepherd kneeling before the fire makes him resemble a horse’s ass with a wolf’s tail).

As the author of “The Whale as Dish” in Moby-Dick (which satirizes sailors who would “eat a newly murdered thing of the sea, and eat it too by its own light”), Melville would certainly have savored the panache with which Decamps illustrates La Fontaine’s sympathetically wolfish tale (NN MD 299). As the owner of an 1879 edition of the Fables of La Fontaine with illustrations by J. J. Grandville (Sealts no. 314a), he would also have enjoyed contrasting Decamps’ representation of “The Wolf and the Shepherd” with Grandville’s tailpiece for the same fable, in which the wolf in monk’s clothing appears to be saying grace before a book propped up next to a vegetarian feast (fig. 2).

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Figure 2. J. J. Grandville. Illustration for “The Wolf and the Shepherds” in Melville’s copy of the Fables of La Fontaine. New York: J. Miller, c. 1879.

The Grandville edition of the Fables gave Melville a whole menagerie of Fontainian creatures (see MBB 3.6). These were augmented in his print collection not only by Decamps’ wolf, sheep, and lamb but also by the whiskered cat in Pesne’s painting about “The Impossible Thing” (CAT 162). Decamps himself depicted a wide variety of animals. His versatility showed especially in his images of monkeys. Le Singe et le Mirror, one the Ten Etchings after Decamps, showed a monkey admiring himself in a mirror. The Experts, a large oil painting now at the New York Metropolitan Museum, featuring a jury of monkeys evaluating a painting, satirizes those jurors of French Academy who had rejected paintings by Decamps earlier in his career. His best-known money painting is The Monkey Painter from the Paris Salon of 1833, now at the Louvre (fig. 3).  In this highly enjoyable and provocative work, Decamps was critiquing certain painters and pictorial practices of his own day while also suggesting the potential agency of animals themselves.

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Figure 2. Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. Le singe peintre (The Monkey Painter), oil on canvas, Salon de 1833, 1849. The Louvre, Paris.