Skip to main content

Parting Thought on Meissonier, Manet, Toulmouche, & Leroux

When Herman Melville retired from his duties at the New York Customs House on December 31, 1885, he had much more time for his twin avocations of book collecting and print collecting. At the same time, he began to receive twenty-five dollars a month from his wife Elizabeth (from a Shaw family legacy) that he was free to spend “chiefly for books and pictures” (Metcalf, Cycles, 265). When the Metropolitan Museum of Art moved to its new building in Central Park at 80th and Fifth Avenue its collection consisted primarily of German paintings. During the last six years of his life, when Melville had much more time and money to devote to his print collection, the Metropolitan Museum greatly enhanced the number and quality of its French paintings through donations by Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, Henry Hilton, and Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1887 and by Edwin Davis in 1889. As we have seen in the catalog entries for this section, by 1890, when Melville was in the habit of visiting Central Park with his young granddaughters Eleanor and Frances as well as on his long solitary walks, the prints he had collected after Meissonier, Manet, Toulmouche, and Leroux were supplemented in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum by Meissonier’s 1807, Friedland  (CAT 173, fig. 1); by Manet’s Boy with a Sword (CAT 174, Fig. 2) and Girl with a Parrot (CAT 175, fig. 3); by Toulmouche’s Homage to Beauty (CAT 175; Fig. 4); and by Leroux’s Roman Ladies at the Tomb of their Ancestors (CAT 176, no image currently available). All of those paintings had been painted in France between 1861 and 1880.

Here we will take a brief look at additional works by these and other contemporary French painters on display at the Metropolitan Museum between November 1890 and April 1891. In addition to Meissonier’s 1807, Friedland among the Modern Masters in the Old Western Galleries, the museum was showing two Meissonier paintings from the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection in the New Western Galleries, General and Adjutant and The Brothers Adrien and Willem van de Velde. His General and Adjutant was a bright, relaxed image of two mounted soldiers that Meissonier had painted in the Antibes. His double portrait of the van de Velde brothers depicted Dutch painters represented in Melville’s print collection (CAT number to be assigned) as well as in “At the Hostelry,” the ambitious dialogue among Old Master painters that Melville was still revising at the time of his death (NN BBO 158-59). But the largest and most dramatic supplement to the mounted horses ridden by the charging cuirassers in Meissonier’s Friedland was Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair, the sixteen-foot-wide canvas from the 1853 Paris Salon that Cornelius Vanderbilt donated to the Museum in 1887, the same year that Friedland arrived as a gift from Henry Hilton (fig. 1).

CAT 176 PT fig 1 rosa bonheur the horse fair ny met 1852-55.jpg

CAT 176 PT, figure 1. Rosa Bonheur. The Horse Fair, oil on canvas, 96 1/2 x 199 1/2 inches, 1852-55. Paris Salon 1853. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1887. Gift of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

In the November 1890 Museum Hand-book this painting, like Meissonier’s Friedland, was accompanied by a very detailed account of its origins and subsequent history. When the painting was to be sold, Bonheur had painted a much smaller version of the canvas, which entered the collection of London’s National Gallery, so that a print could be made. This larger canvas, like Meissonier’s Friedland, had been in the collection of A. T. Stewart in New York until being sold at the auction of his estate in 1887, when Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired this painting as a gift to the Metropolitan Museum. In the Old Western Gallery of the Metropolitan Museum, the charging and bucking horses of Friedland and The Horse Fair had been exhibited in close proximity to each other (nos. 70 and 78 in the Handbook, pp. 35-38). I had hoped to see them together when I visited the Museum in September 2022, but at that time Meissonier’s Friedland was in storage and the only animal companion to Bonheur’s magnificent horses was the struck sperm whale in Turner’s The Whale Ship, visible in the room to the left (fig. 2). The Whale Ship had arrived at the Metropolitan Museum as a purchase from the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Fund in 1896, five years after Melville’s death.

CAT 176 PT fig 2 horse fair and whale ship sept 2022.JPG

CAT 176 PT, figure 2. Visitor photographing Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair with J. M. W. Turner’s The Whale Ship visible through the doorway at the left, September 9, 2022. 

Two other works in the New Western Galleries from the Wolfe Collection featured dramatic images of horses. Horace Vernet’s 1820 oil painting Horses (no. 95) was listed as “a study for the large picture Roman Corso.” Today at the New York Met this canvas is known as The Start of the Race of the Riderless Horses (fig. 3). Its visual affinity with Bonheur’s The Horse Fair is obvious. The commentary on the Museum website explains that “Vernet’s painting depicts grooms struggling to restrain the horses before the start of the race” in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, a race that Goethe called “one of the finest sights that can be seen anywhere in the world” (“The Start of the Race”).

CAT 176 PT fig 3 horace vernet horses 1820 ny met wolfe 1887.jpg

CAT 176 PT, figure 3. Horace Vernet. The Start of the Race of the Riderless Horses, oil on canvas, 1820. Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1887, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection.

A single horse holds the center of attention in The Night Patrol at Smyrna by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (fig. 4), another painting from the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection that entered Metropolitan Museum in 1877 (no. 11 in the November 1890 Hand-book). The coordinated motion of the foot soldiers surrounding the proud leader on the white horse helps to show why Decamps was so highly admired as a pioneering Orientalist able to depict with first-hand immediacy sites he had seen when traveling in the Near East (see our discussion under CAT 172, Melville’s copy of Marvy’s etching after Decamps’ Le Loup et les Bergers). Apart from the painting’s sense of instantaneous motion, and the fact that Melville had acquired an etching after a drawing by Decamps, Melville would also have been drawn to this painting by his own travels to Turkey, and to Smyrna in particular, in 1856. Melville sailed into its “spacious” harbor on the mooring of December 26 and stayed several days, exploring its architecture, its topography, its religious ruins, and its commercial ties, fascinated by a “constant succession of trains of camels, mules, horses, mules, and donkeys” before sailing on to Syra. In early February, Melville stopped for a much shorter time Smyrna after having spent most of January in Palestine, this time sailing again for Syra before continuing on to Piraeus and Athens (NN J 68-70, 98).

CAT 176 PT fig 4 The Turkish Patrol variant of 1831 ny met.jpg

CAT 176 PT, figure 4. Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, The Turkish Patrol at Smyrna, oil on canvas, after 1828. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1877, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection.

Seeing Decamps’ Night Patrol at Smyrna after it arrived at the Museum as part of the Wolfe Collection in 1887 would have been a welcome visual refresher while Melville was revising his “Fruit of Travel Long Ago” for publication in Timoleon (the book of poetry he printed privately few months before his death in September 1891). In that collection of travel poems, Melville’s memory of his own multiple transits through the Aegean islands and along the Turkish coast, merging with his own imaginative projection of life as it may have been lived on these islands and shores in ancient days, resulted in the multicultural, timebending poem he called “Syra (A Transmitted Reminiscence).” Beginning with the Greek populace being driven from Scio to Syra by the “turbaned Turks” in the war in which “Greece at least flung off the Turk” (a war that the French artists Garneray and Decamps had actively covered in 1828: see CAT 171 and 172), Melville then imagines the island in its more “primitive” days, “such an island resort / As hearthless Homer may have known.” That imaginative leap resembles the one that Turner took in depicting The School of Homer (Scio) in Melville’s copy of The Poetical Works of Lord Byron (Book Box 1.2), or the one that Mochetti and Staccoli took when creating Melville's engraving of Achilles in Sciro (CAT 15). Melville’s personal toggling between present and past is most clearly typified when his own reminiscence of “Frolickers, picturesquely odd” in Syra, “Each in his tassled Phrygian cap,” reveals “some with features cleanly cut / As Proserpine’s upon the coin,” a double allusion to the print he acquired of Ancient Persian and Greek coins (CAT 1; NN PP 309-311).

Melville’s mind was so capacious and voracious, so freely ranging over all of known human history—particularly as expressed in printed or spoken words and in engraved or painted images—that it is impossible to predict what torrent, or symphony, or web of associations might have poured forth as he was reading, writing, or revising a literary text or looking at some indelible image in an engraving, a painting, or in the face of nature. Two largely unexplored manifestations of Melville’s interest in French painting are the copies he acquired of two books about The Painters of Barbizon by John Mollett published in New York in 1890, a year before Melville died. The six painters featured in these two books—Millet, Rousseau, and Diaz; Corot, Daubigny, and Dupré—all broke away from the tradition of idealized landscapes of historic, biblical, or mythological landscapes perfected by Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin and their French successors (see our CAT 121 to CAT 151) to produce fresh, descriptive images of the natural world as perceived by the naked eye. Created in the vicinity of the Fontainebleau forest outside of Paris in the mid-19th century, these seemingly modest and highly realistic paintings at first had difficulty competing with the ideal landscape aesthetic of the French Salon or the dramatic departures of the French Romantics, but by the time the early Impressionists began to challenge the French art establishment in the 1860s, the Barbizon painters were not only being exhibited on the walls of the Paris Salon but in some cases acting as jurors for who would be included.

Once American collectors became active in the Parisian art markets of the 1870s, it was only a matter of time until selected Barbizon paintings began to cross the Atlantic. The first conspicuous group of Barbizon paintings to enter the Metropolitan Museum in New York arrived as part of the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection in 1887. The November 1890 Hand-book listing for the Wolfe Collection in the New Western Galleries included paintings by Corot (Ville d’Avray, near Paris, no 60), Rousseau (River Landscape, no. 53), Daubigny (On the Seine; Morning, no. 39, and On the River Oise; Evening, no. 99), Dupré (The Hay Wagon, no. 10, and The Old Oak, no. 92), and Diaz (Study of Trees, no. 43, Edge of a Forest, no. 55, and Landscape, no. 142). Seeing paintings like these on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum may well have inspired Melville to acquire the two books on The Painters of Barbizon that Mollett published in New York in 1890 (Sealts, nos. 361 and 362), just as the arrival of such paintings in the Museum’s permanent collection may itself have encouraged Scribner and Welford to publish those books in New York.

Jean-François Millet was the only Barbizon painter of the six featured in the two books by Mollett whose original paintings Melville could not have seen being exhibited in the New Western Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum. Millet was the first artist featured in Mollett’s book on Millet, Rousseau, and Diaz, and the discussion of Millet’s life and art was supplemented by thirteen illustrations, one of which reproduced the famous painting known as The Gleaners (fig. 5).

CAT 176 PT fig 5 millet gleaners facing p 1 Mollett ny 1890.jpg

CAT 176 PT, figure 5. Jean-François Millet. The Gleaners. In John W. Mollett. The Painters of Barbizon: Millet, Rousseau, Diaz. New York: Scribner and Welford, 1890, facing p. 11.

Looking at this reproduction in his New York City brownstone in 1890 or 1891 would have given Melville a striking example of how French landscape painting had changed since Claude and Poussin created the mid-seventeenth century landscapes represented in his print collection. Looking at this landscape might also have made him think of his years tending to his farm in Pittsfield between 1850 and 1863. After attending to the rhythms, hardships, and revelations of working a farm in his early middle years, Melville embraced a more contemplative way of cultivating the landscape in the later years, especially in the unpublished collection of poems called Weeds and Wildings he was still revising at the time of his death. In the prose preface dedicated to Winnefred (as stand-in for Herman’s wife Elizabeth), Melville’s narrator recalls their life together four decades earlier “at our adopted homestead on the hill-side—now ours no more—the farm-house long ago shorn by the urbane barbarian succeeding us in the proprietorship.” In those days he would come in from his “rambles” outdoors in the heat of the summer or the chill of the fall with handfuls of red clover, the meek and modest flower cultivated by nature herself rather than mankind’s shaping hand (NN BBO 75-76).

Melville’s narrator, merging into the speaker in the poems, values the clover mainly because it is natural to the landscape, not artificially cultivated—and because it will outlast all human degradation or ambition. This theme emerges from various poems in this collection much as it does in the landscapes of Millet and other Barbizon painters. One such poem is “Trophies of Peace,” inspired by young Melville’s travel to “Illinois in 1840.” There the “spears” of “Prairie Maize” with their “rustling streamers” put him in mind of those ancient days “When Asia scarfed in silks came on against the Greeks at Marathon,” their “plumes and pennons” enacting “a tasseled dance of death.” This image contrasts with the natural rhythms of the Prairie Maize whose reapers “reap them low, and stack the plain / With Ceres’ trophies, golden grain” (NN BBO 107-115). Melville’s poem honors the reapers who reap the grain, rather than the “gleaners” who come after to salvage the kernels left behind, but the poem, like painting, honors the husbandry of those who actually do the work

A different kind of tribute the fecundity of nature comes in “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac,” a sketch that combines poetry and prose. There the humble lilac bush planted by the nondescript Rip outlasts not only his own unremarkable life but the aspirations of his more ambitious successors, becoming in fact the ruling symbol of a living community (NN BBO 107-15). Throughout Melville’s “Weeds and Wildings,” as throughout the Barbizon paintings, natures’s natural processes take precedence over the industrial and commercial inventions of man, seeking to align the vision and action of the human community with the rhythm and spirit of the natural world.

Parting Thought on Meissonier, Manet, Toulmouche, & Leroux