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Boy with a Sword

CAT 174 Manet The Sword Boy BA 215.jpg

CAT 174. Drawn and engraved by Edouard Manet. Boy with a Sword. Etched in 1862 after the 1861 painting acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1889. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Edouard Manet (1832-1883) painted his Boy with a Sword in 1861 and created the etching that was later acquired by Herman Melville one year later. The painting was exhibited in Paris and Bordeaux in 1862 and in Paris and Brussels in 1863 but its appearance during the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867 underscored the frustrations Manet was then enduring during his early career. He was exhibiting Boy a Sword not at the Universal Exposition (from which all his submissions, including Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, had been rejected), but in the one-man exhibition of 53 of his own works in the wooden building he had erected for this purpose near the exhibition grounds, none of which was sold (Farwell 256; King 188, 201).

One member of the jury of twenty-four artists that had rejected Manet’s submissions for the Universal Exposition was Ernest Meissonier. He was reaching the peak of what had already been an extremely successful career as a French artist. Fourteen of his paintings had been accepted for the Universal Exposition. These included Lecture chez Diderot (1859), an engraving of which was the subject of our previous entry (CAT 173). Three of Meissonier’s recent paintings of military scenes had also been accepted, but only Napoleon III at Solferino (1863) and 1814, The Campaign of France (1864) were exhibited. Meissonier had not been able to complete 1807, Friedland in time for the Universal Exposition. Even so, Henry Probasco of Cincinnati, Ohio, had offered to purchase it for the unprecedented sum of $30,000 (see our CAT 173 fig. 2). John Mollett in the 1882 book on Meissonier that Melville acquired presents the Universal Exposition of 1867 as the “the triumph of the career of M. Meissonier” (as well as “the culminating incident of the Empire” of Louis-Napoleon). Meissonier had become “the tacitly recognized leader of French Art” and many then considered him the greatest living artist in the world (Mollett 65-66; King 204). Once Meissonier had finally completed Friedland in 1875, Manet quipped that “everything looks made of steel . . . except for the cuirasses” (Miller).

In 1848-49, young Manet had sailed to Rio de Janeiro in an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the French Naval College. Upon returning to Paris, he served a six-year apprenticeship in the atelier of Thomas Couture before establishing his own studio in 1856. In 1862 Manet became a founding member of the Société de Aquafortistes and made an etching of the Boy with a Sword he had painted the year before. The boy in the painting is Léon Leenhoff, the ten-year-old natural son of Suzanne Leenhoff, the piano teacher of Manet’s family whom Manet was to marry in 1863 (Farwell 254, 256). For the painting, Manet had provided Léon with a seventeenth-century costume and sword as a tribute to the Spanish painter Velasquez. The sword was provided by the painter Charles Monginot, a fellow student of Couture who is also represented in Melville’s print collection (see CAT 179). Manet’s etching of Boy with a Sword (L’Infant a l’epée) was part of a portfolio of engravings that he exhibited with the dealer and print publisher Cadart in 1862, but at the last minute he decided not to include it in the published portfolio, probably because he was not satisfied with his most recent changes (Farwell 256; Harris 90-91).

Although Manet’s etchings “were chiefly reproductive of his paintings,” they were innovative in method. “Manet incorporated aquatint and other etched tones, and drypoint, into his copperplate repertory.” The “tonal effects” he achieved “through both hatched line and aquatint” were “at variance with the ‘pure etching’ ideals” of the Société he had helped to found. In achieving these effects, Manet showed his close study of the innovative methods by which Francisco Goya had combined a variety of techniques in his engravings after paintings by Velasquez (Farwell 256; 260-61). Marcel Guérin in 1944 showed the process by which Manet made an outline drawing of the boy with the sword and then built up the etching in a series of states in which zigzag lines, aquatint, and exceptionally dense cross-hatching resulted in the completed print (Guérin, nos. 11-14). Harris in her Catalogue Raisonné of Manet’s prints thirty years later was to document a sequence of two trial proofs and four states of the first finished plate in which the Boy with a Sword turns to the left. She also presented one state of a second plate in which the boy is facing to the right, as in the painting itself (nos. 24-27, figs. 54-60, pp. 83-91). Many questions remain about the chronology and distribution of the various states and plates given the absence of any confirmed publication record (see Harris, pp. 17-20). Melville’s copy of the etching, in which the boy turns to the right, must have been produced from the second plate. But it is not as heavily etched or shaded as the example Harris shows in her one state from that plate (fig. 60), so it must have come from an earlier state.

Beyond its pictorial and art-historical interest, Melville is likely to have been struck by the psychological implications of Manet’s young boy dwarfed by the sword he holds above the huge belt that hangs below it. Melville, as the grandson of Revolutionary War heroes on both sides of the family tree, knew well the weight of familial military tradition on malleable minds. In 1862, as Manet was etching his Boy with a Sword, Melville was following a sequence of battles in America’s Civil War that he was to commemorate in Battle-Pieces, the collection of poems he published in 1866. In one of those poems, “On the Slain Collegians,” Melville conveyed the fate of all young soldiers who had “early blossomed and died an unabated Boy.” He specifically commemorated soldiers who had died in 1862 in “Donaldson (February, 1862),” “In the Turret (March 1862),” “Shiloh. A Requiem (April, 1862),” “The Battle for the Mississippi” (April, 1862),” “Malvern Hill (July 1862),” and “The Victor of Antietam” (NN PP 118-19, 23-53).

Soon after the end of the Civil War such dynamics had become all too personal in the Melville family home. On September 12, 1867, Herman’s son Malcolm was found dead in his bedroom in the family home, his pistol near his head, a likely suicide. Born in 1849 and a teenager during the Civil War, Malcolm had joined a local regiment of the National Guard whose uniform he is wearing in the one surviving image from this period of his life (fig. 1). Eleanor Melville Metcalf, the granddaughter and biographer of Melville who donated this image to the Berkshire Athenaeum, indicated that “Malcolm was very proud of his uniform and firearms as a member of the New York twenty-second Regiment of the National Guard; so much so that his sisters used to twit him about his love of dressing up in martial array. His companions had repeatedly cautioned him about his careless handling of his firearms. They knew he had boasted of sleeping with his pistol under his pillow” (Cycle and Epicycle, p. 208).

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Figure 1.  Malcolm Melville in his National Guard uniform, watercolor by unknown artist, c. 1867. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

One can only imagine the impact on Melville to have lost his first-born son in this way. As we note in our introductory essay “Herman Melville as Print Collector” and in our entry for CAT 111, Melville had written the one surviving document about his activity as a print collector—the note to Elias Dexter thanking him for framing a mezzotint of The Healing of the Blind—less than two years after Malcolm’s death.

We do not know when, or under what circumstances, Melville acquired Manet’s 1862 etching of Boy with a Sword. But he would have had multiple opportunities to see the painting from which the etching was made in the 1880s. The painting that had failed to sell at Manet’s personal exhibition outside the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867 had remained with various dealers and private collectors in Paris until it was purchased by Edwin Davis of New York in 1881. The painting was first exhibited in New York at the National Academy of Design at 23rd and Park Avenue in December 1883. Davis loaned Boy with a Sword to the National Academy again in March and April 1886, this time for an exhibition of “Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionists of Paris” (“Boy with a Sword, 1861”). The National Academy building was only short walk from the house at 104 East 26th Street in which the Melvilles had lived since 1863. On a visit to the National Academy in 1865, Melville had seen paintings by R. Swain Gifford and Elihu Vedder that inspired the poems he published a year later in Battle-Pieces as “The Coming Storm” and “Jane Jackson, Formerly a Slave" (Leyda, 2:676).

In 1889, New Yorkers had more permanent access to Boy with a Sword when Edwin Davis donated that painting (fig. 2) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Davis also donated Manet’s Young Lady in 1866, also known as Girl with a Parrot. These were “the first works by Manet to enter a museum collection” in America (“Boy with a Sword, 1861”).

CAT 174 fig 1 Manet Boy with a Sword NY Met - Copy.jpg

Figure 2. Eduoard Manet. Boy with a Sword, oil on canvas, 1861. Acquired by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1889. Gift of Edwin Davis.

After Boy with a Sword was shown in Melville’s immediate neighborhood in 1883 and 1886 and then acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 1889, Manet’s etching after that painting became one of the rare prints in his collection that Melville could potentially compare with the original painting from which it was made. Always interested in issues of artistic representation and transformation, he would have been able to imagine some of the process by which Manet had transformed the young boy whose blond hair, pale face, white collar, and pale hands stand out against the black and dark brown background in the oil painting into the boy who in the etching is standing on much brighter white ground. Above the ankles the white ground is cut off by an inky blackness that sets off the white blankness of his face, collar, and hands, those solid patches of white being augmented by the etched white lines that highlight the noose-like shape of the belt hanging from between the hands on the sword.

If Melville did see Manet’s Boy with a Sword at the Metropolitan Museum during the last two years of his life, he would have seen it in the same gallery as Meissonier’s Friedland, 1807 (CAT 173; Fig. 2). In the 1889-90 Hand-book for visitors to the “Pictures by Modern Masters” in the Old Western Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, Manet’s Boy with a Sword was listed as no. 23 and Meissonier’s Friedland as no. 71. Manet’s Boy with a Sword (50 x 33 ½ inches) was nearly as tall but only a third as wide as Meissonier’s Friedland (52 ½ x 95 inches) (Hand-book, No. 1; November 1890 to April 1891, pp. 31, 35-37). In addition to comparing Manet’s oil painting of Boy with a Sword to the etching he had acquired of the same subject, Melville would have been able to compare Manet’s painting of an anonymous ten-year-old boy with a warrior's sword to Meissonier’s painting of Napoleon at the height of his power reviewing his charging horses and mounted cuirassiers. Here in New York, at least, Manet, six years after his own death, was beginning to get some parity with Meissonier in a major museum.

In 1880 the Metropolitan Museum had moved to its current home in Central Park near 82nd and Fifth Avenue. We know from two of his granddaughters that Melville was in the habit of taking them to Central Park in the last two years of his life. In the recollection that she published in 1965 as “Herman Melville through a Child’s Eyes,” Frances Cuthbert Thomas Osborne, who would have been eight years old when her grandfather died, recalled the “frequent trips” they took “to Central Park to see the animals” at the Zoo. She would “cling tightly to his big hand” so she would not “be lost amid the lions and tigers.” On some visits, “grandpa would order a swan boat” so they could “experience the delicious sensation of gliding about on the water” (Sealts, Early Lives, 182-83).

Eleanor Melville Metcalf, one year older than her sister Francis, recollected her own visits to Central Park with their grandfather in the biography she published of Melville in 1953. For her, “a trip to Central Park” was “the Mecca of most of our pilgrimages.” Melville “made a brave and striking figure as he walked erect, head thrown back, cane in hand, inconspicuously dressed in a dark blue suit and a soft felt black hat.” Young Eleanor would “skip gaily beside him” as they walked, “anticipating the long jogging ride in the horse cars” into the “upper reaches of our journey” through the Park. If any of those journeys took them to the Western Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, one can imagine the pleasure he would have taken in showing her Manet’s ten-year-old boy with a sword in the same gallery as Meissonier’s charging horses and cuirassiers. Always, Eleanor recalled, when they returned home from one of these outings, they would stop before “the coloured engraving of the Bay of Naples” in the front hall so Melville could point with his cane to the “little boats sailing hither and thither” across the bay (Early Lives, 178; Cycle and Epicycle, 282-83; see CAT 120).

Apart from his visits with his granddaughters, Melville was also in the habit of visiting Central Park alone. As Arthur Stedman recalled in his account of “Herman Melville’s Funeral” in the New York Daily Tribune on October 10, 1891, Melville’s “tall, stalwart figure, until recently, would be seen almost daily tramping through the Fort George district or Central Park, his roving inclination leading him to obtain as much out-door life as possible. His evenings were spent at home with his books, his pictures and his family, and usually with them alone.” In the previous paragraph, Stedman had noted that Melville “was always a great reader, and was much interested in collecting engravings of the old masters, having a large library and a fine assortment of prints” (Early Lives, 100). Add the habitual excursions to Central Park, with or without his granddaughters, to the books in the library and the collection of prints and you have Melville still enjoying in his final years those “only three pleasures in life pure and lasting” that he had marked in the copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms of Art he acquired in 1870: “books, pictures, and the face of nature” (Hazlitt, p. 40; Sealts no. 263a).