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CAT 183  Vallais peasant costumes MSA reese 6 MB.jpeg

CAT 183. Anonymous. Vallais. Traditional costumes from the Swiss region of Valais. Hand-colored lithograph from early 19th-century costume book. Melville Society Archive, William Reese Collection.

I am grateful to Bernard Crettaz of the Geneva Museum of Ethnology for identifying this print as having come from one of the costume books which published such images early in the nineteenth century. The Swiss canton of Valais (also spelled Vallais at the time) encompasses the valley of the River Rhône as it flows from its headwaters high in the east into the waters of Lake Geneva, bordered by mountains on every side. Its southern border runs along the eastern edge of France until it reaches the area of St. Bernard Pass, where it then the follows the northern border of Italy up near the crossing to San Gotthard Pass. The surrounding mountains had allowed Valais to preserve its political independence until 1815, when it became a canton of Switzerland in order to free itself from France, whose invading armies had occupied it intermittently since 1810.

Valais has always been divided culturally between its French-language inhabitants along the western and central areas of the Rhône and its German-Swiss speakers along its eastern uplands (who refer to Valais as Wallis). Even so, its topographical isolation and political independence had caused many to see this region as embodying an essential Swissness. Adherence to the Roman Catholic faith has also been a unifying influence among the peoples of Valais. You can see that influence in the rosary beads being held, as well as the crosses being worn, by the two standing women in Melville’s lithograph. That this lithograph is hand-painted is easily seen by contrasting the lipstick and make-up of the standing women in Melville’s copy with that of those in the copy now in the collection of the British Museum (fig. 2).

CAT 183 fig 1 Vallais from British Museum.png

Figure 1. Anonymous. Vallais. Three woman wearing straw hats and conversing. Hand-painted lithograph, 19th century. British Museum.

In Melville’s collection, the closest stylistic equivalent to this depiction of the costumed women of Valais would be his hand-colored colored print of the seafood vender in Naples (CAT 119). The Neapolitan figure, however, displays his picturesque costume in a much more animated way than do his demure Valaisian counterparts.