CAT 184. Peter Toft. Sketch of Notre Dame de Rouen, pen, ink, and wash on paper, October 1887. Gift from the artist to Herman Melville. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.
Peter Toft’s Sketch of Notre Dame de Rouen was being preserved in one of the three portfolios of nearly three hundred prints from Melville’s personal art collection when I discovered them at the Berkshire Athenaeum in 1985. This pen-and-ink drawing was framed by the Athenaeum staff one year later. We are including it among the French prints from Melville’s collection in this chapter because that is one of the primary places it would have had in Melville’s visual imagination. Toft dated the drawing October 1887, one year after he and Melville appear to have met for the first time.
Peter Petersen Toft (1825-1901) was a native of Denmark whose young manhood was as adventurous as Melville’s had been. He had left his native land on a whale ship as a teenager in the early 1840s and by the Spring of 1850 he had sailed into San Francisco as a crew member on the warship USS Ohio. In addition to working as a miner during the Gold Rush, Toft was “a painter, a draftsman, a writer for newspapers” and “a traveler and naturalist” while living in California in the 1850s. Toft also lived and traveled in the Pacific Northwest; shortly before returning to Denmark in 1867, he was living and painting in Montana (Barry and Patten, p. 184; "Peter Petersen Toft").
Toft continued to travel and paint in the 1870s, often from a base in London. He had always been gifted in languages, enough so that he appears to have been one of the few people in Melville’s lifetime to read Clarel, the epic Poem and Pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Melville published in 1876 and pulped a year later. In 1882, four years before he met Melville in New York, Toft created perhaps the first serious work of visual art ever to interpret a literary work by Melville, The Holy Palm, Mar Saba, Palestine, a watercolor directly inspired by the Mar Saba canto of Clarel (see CAT 19, fig. 1). The next year Toft created Flamboro Head, inspired by the nautical adventures of John Paul Jones in chapter 19 of Melville’s Israel Potter (NN IP 120-30). Toft presented this work to Melville with “kind regards” when they met in New York in 1886, the year in which he also presented Rodondo, inspired by The Encantadas, to Melville “with very kind regards” (Wallace, 1986, p. 86). Because these three artworks were gifts to Melville as the American author who inspired them, we will catalog and fully discuss them in chapter 8 (CAT numbers to be determined).
By 1886, Toft had become a friend of W. Clark Russell, the English maritime writer who had published The Wreck of the Grosvenor in 1877, a book Melville recommended to a correspondent in 1885. By 1884, Russell had helped to resurrect some interest in Melville as a maritime writer in England by calling him one of the very finest “poets of the sea” in an essay in Contemporary Review. Sometime after April 7, 1886, when Toft presented Melville with his watercolors of Flamboro Head and Rodondo, Melville entrusted Toft to deliver a letter to Russell when he returned to England. In his return letter to Melville in July, Russell was “was happy to hear from Mr. Toft that you are still hale and hearty.” Russell thanked Melville for “the kind spirit in which you have read my books” and said how pleased he was to have acquired the American editions of Typee, Omoo, Redburn, and “that noble piece Moby-Dick” (NN CO 486-87, 498-500, 731-32; Leyda 2:799).
One year later, Peter Toft’s Sketch of Notre Dame de Rouen was inspired, not by the writings of Melville, but by the Rouen Cathedral itself. Its October 1887 date is presumably when Toft presented the drawing to Melville with this further inscription: “This is a Gothic dream, an adumbration of Notre Dame de Rouen. The figures are in right relation the Church. Its central spire is made of iron 150 feet high” (Wallace 1986, fig. 11, pp. 77-78). This drawing of one of France’s most famous cathedrals would have been especially welcome at a time when works by contemporary French artists were suddenly becoming highly desirable among the auction houses and galleries in Melville’s immediate neighborhood, in Melville’s own print collection, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art uptown in Central Park. As we have seen, 1887 was the year in which the Metropolitan Museum had acquired Meissonier’s Friedland, Bonheur’s The Horse Fair, and the wide range of contemporary French works from the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection.
Rouen Cathedral in Normandy had a glorious history that was reaching its peak in the 1880s. The first Christian cathedral on its site had been visited by Charlemagne in 769 A.D. A new Romanesque cathedral had been consecrated in 1063 in the presence of William the Conquerer. By 1185 construction of the sanctuary and west front of a new Gothic cathedral had resulted in the destruction of its Romanesque predecessor. Elaborate carvings were added to the west front in 1370 and again in 1450, and beginning in 1468 the tower of Saint-Romaine received a new extension in the Gothic Flamboyant style. By the beginning of the 16th century, a new Gothic tower with Renaissance components was being built above the central nave of the Cathedral.
When the central tower was destroyed by lightning in 1822, it was replaced by a controversial cast-iron spire reaching a height of 495 feet by the time it was completed in 1882 (this leading to Toft’s inscription to Melville indicating that “its central spire is made of iron 450 feet high”). The completion of this spire made the Rouen Cathedral second in height only to the Cologne Cathedral, which reached 515 feet when its two towers were competed in 1880.
After seeing the Cologne Cathedral during his brief visit to Germany in 1849, Melville had called attention to “the crane still standing upon the top of its uncompleted tower” in the “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick. He had then offered that cathedral as evidence that “small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity” (NN MD 145). By 1887, the “Gothic dreams” and subsequent “adumbrations” of the first architects of the Rouen and Cologne Cathedrals had actually been realized. During that decade, Toft and Russell were among a very few who felt the power of Melville’s literary genius. That shock of recognition was not to be more broadly felt until the middle of the next century.
Peter Toft’s 1887 sketch emphasizes the west front of Rouen Cathedral rather than the absolute height of its central tower, which he crops at the top. The west façade is shown in impressive detail, especially for having been done as a “Sketch of Speed,” as Toft’s inscription suggests. The west front of this Cathedral is the same one that Claude Monet was to make famous by making thirty paintings of this one façade under varying conditions of light beginning in 1892 (one year after Melville’s death and five years after Toft’s sketch). Monet was able to make so many heavily textured oil paintings of this highly ornamented façade because he made his own “Sketches of Speed” to capture the fleeting light in the open air. Having done this, he could then seek to preserve the effects of that light as it played over the thick textures of the impressionistic oil paintings he then created in his studio. Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight, which entered the National Gallery in Washington, D. C., in 1963, was completed in 1894 (fig. 1). Monet, like Toft, sketched a few tiny figures in the foreground to show the scale.
Figure 1. Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight, oil on canvas, 1894. National Gallery, Washington, D. C.
References in Melville’s surviving correspondence indicate that he kept in touch with Peter Toft during the last five years of his life. In 1888, Melville dedicated John Marr and other Sailors, a self-published book of poems honoring sailors he had sailed with in the 1840s, to their mutual friend W. Clark Russell. Not surprisingly, Melville appears to have sent a copy to Peter Toft, himself a sailor in that decade (NN CO 512). In the poem “Bridegroom Dick” Melville eulogizes many shipmates from his 1843-44 voyage from Honolulu to Boston on the warship USS United States that had inspired novel White-Jacket, published in 1850. Melville had fewer kind words, either in the novel or in the poem, for Thomas ap Catesby Jones (1790-1858). Jones was the Commodore on that voyage who enforced the flogging of sailors that Melville bitterly attacked in the novel (see especially chapters 33-36 and 52). In White-Jacket Melville also attacked the self-aggrandizing actions of Jones as Commodore of the Pacific Fleet that Melville had witnessed during their ship’s visit to Rio de Janeiro (chapters 39, 40, 46). Thirty years after the Commodore’s death, Melville asks in John Marr:
Where is Ap Catesby?—the fights fought of yore Famed him, and laced him with epaulets, and more. But fame is a wake that after-wakes cross, And the waters wallow all, and laugh Where’s the loss? (NN PP 203).
Peter Toft seems to have had a somewhat better experience with Thomas ap Catesby Jones than Herman Melville had. After serving as Commodore of the Pacific Fleet from 1842-44, when Melville sailed under his command on the USS United States, Jones was reinstated to that position from 1848-50, when Toft sailed under his command on the USS Ohio. As White-Jacket was being published in the early months of 1850, Toft and Commodore Jones had arrived in San Francisco on the USS Ohio. Toft revisited that experience in USS Ohio Entering the Golden Gate, a watercolor he painted in the late 1880s when Melville was publishing John Marr (fig. 2).
Figure 2. Peter Toft. USS Ohio Entering the Golden Gate, watercolor on paper, inscribed by the artist “Golden Gate, S. Francisco, P. Toft ’89.” Clars Auction Gallery, Oakland.
Our only current information regarding Toft’s experience on the Ohio under Commodore Jones comes in Men and Memories of San Francisco in the "Spring of ‘50", a reminiscence by two San Franciscans published in 1873. They report that “Toft shipped as a common sailor, with a very slight knowledge of the English language, although a master of Greek, Latin and several modern languages. Toft’s deportment and studious habits attracted the attention of Commodore Jones, who allowed him books from the library, and Toft was nearly a master of English on his arrival in California” (Barry and Patten, p. 184). One can imagine Toft and Melville comparing their experiences of Commodore Jones, of the ships which he commanded, and even of the libraries in those ships (see chapter 41 in White-Jacket). Because young Toft had also begun his nautical career on a whale ship, perhaps they also discussed the Melville’s breezy account in the “Affidavit” chapter of Moby-Dick of how the prideful Commodore J’s sloop-of-war had been "thwacked" by a whale (NN MD 207).
Because Melville and Toft had both sailed on the Pacific Ocean on both whale ships and war ships in the 1840s, there would be no end of potential subjects to discuss or experiences to share. One passage in “Bridegroom Dick” honors Melville’s cousin Guert Gansevoort for his heroism at Vera Cruz in the Mexican-American war in 1847, shortly before Commodore Jones returned as Commander of the Pacific Fleet on the USS Ohio; in the 1830s, cousin Guert had served on the USS Ohio in the Mediterranean. Another poem in John Marr, “To the Master of the Meteor,” honors Melville’s own brother Tom, under whose command he had sailed, as a passenger, around Cape Horn and though the Golden Gate into San Francisco in 1860. Melville begins another poem in John Marr, “Old Counsel Of the young Master Of a wrecked California clipper,” with these lines: “Come out of the Golden Gate, / Go round the Horn with streamers” (NN PP 203, 228, 234).
In addition the many nautical subjects Melville and Toft might have discussed in the late 1880s, when Melville was publishing John Marr and Toft was painting USS Ohio Entering the Golden Gate, there was one more subject, deeply painful to Melville, they might have touched upon as early as their meeting in New York in 1886. In February of that year Melville’s thirty-five-year-old son Stanwix, born in the year Melville published Moby-Dick, had died, impoverished, in a San Francisco hospital. Stanwix had sailed for the West in 1873, settling eventually in San Francisco, where he was as unsuccessful in finding, or keeping, satisfactory employment, as he had been in the New York area. Toft was in San Francisco during the month Stanwix died, for his watercolor The Beach from the Cliff-House near San Francisco, California is signed, “S. Francisco. P. Toft 2/86” (fig. 3). This impressive painting had been lost to history until 2008, when curators at the U. S. White House identified this painting as having been acquired by First Lady Caroline Harrison in 1890.
Figure 3. Peter Petersen Toft. The Beach from the Cliff-House near San Francisco, California, watercolor, 1886. Acquired by First Lady Caroline Harrison in 1890. White House Collection, White House Historical Association.
Stanwix Melville had died in San Francisco in 1886 but he and his brother Malcolm are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York near where their parents were to join them in 1891 and 1906 respectively. Hershel Parker infers that the Melvilles would have arranged for the body to be shipped from San Francisco (Parker 2: 888-89). One wonders if Peter Toft, who was soon himself to be visiting Melville in New York, might have helped with some of the arrangements soon after having painted the Pacific Shore from Cliff-House with small black figures along the liquid shore similar to those he would put at the foot of Rouen Cathedral one year later.
In December 1889, W. Clark Russell had published his three-volume novel An Ocean Tragedy with a heartfelt dedication to Melville that was inadvertently omitted in the American edition by Harpers. When Russell wrote to Melville to explain the situation in early January, he mentioned that Peter Toft was expecting to “return to America this month. I wish the beastly rheumatism would let me accompany him” (NN CO 754-55).