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Cephalus and Procris

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CAT 129. John Browne after Claude Lorrain. Cephalus and Procris. London: John Boydell, March 25, 1779. Melville Chapin Collection.

Cephalus and Procris is another “silvery” engraving after a late landscape by Claude Lorrain that Herman Melville framed to display in his own home; this frame is of wood, painted a dull gold. This folio print was engraved in 1779 by John Browne, who had been a fellow apprentice with Woollett. Browne’s Cephalis and Procris not only resembles Woollett’s Enchanted Castle in size, date, and place of production; the painting it reproduces also dates from the same year: 1664. 

Claude’s Landscape with Cephalus and Procris reunited by Diana (Roethlisberger, LV 163) was the last, purest, and most meditative of four separate paintings in which Claude illustrated the mythological story of Cephalus and Procris from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. As with his Landscape with Psyche and the Palace of Amor in the same year, he reduced his subject to its simplest, most evocative elements. Here, too, Claude has given his own personal twist to a well-known story; he is the only painter to have included the figure of Diana in the lovers’ reunion, an element not present in his Ovidian source (Russell, 1982, 181).

In the first half of Ovid’s story, Procris had sought refuge with Diana the huntress, the goddess of chastity, after Cephalus, her husband, had falsely suspected her of infidelity. When Procris is finally prepared to return to her husband, Diana presents her with a dog and a spear. Procris presents these to Cephalus in the reunion as Claude depicts it. Diana herself stands between the two lovers, with a young boy holding the spear on one side, and deer in a shady glade on the other. This shady glade would seem to be even more a “bower of balm” than Psyche’s seaside bower, also enlivened by deer and stags.

After this stately moment of reconciliation, the one Claude chose to fix on canvas, Ovid’s story enacts a tragic reversal, for now it is Procris who will doubt her husband’s fidelity. She will hide herself in foliage to observe him and he, hearing a rustling noise, will dart the divine spear, finding his lover’s heart. This denouement is absent from Claude’s painting, but it would have been present in the painter’s mind, and in the collective mind of his audience, giving added poignance to the depicted moment of reconciliation. Claude’s inclusion of Diana herself gives the fateful reunion an added interpretive edge, augmenting her divine complicity in the tragic destiny of the pointed spear. 

On the plot level, Cephalus and Procris would seem to be the opposite of Melville’s Urania, for they have dared to love. In the moment depicted by Claude, they even seem to embody the rare good fortune of two “matching halves” that do manage to “meet and mate.”  The delicacy of their hands as they join to take the leash of the dog is touching, with no current reason to fear the upright sword held by the boy. Yet such is “the dicing of blind fate” that these reunited “human integers,” too, will soon be “cloven asunder,” enacting their own irreversible intersection of “Cosmic jest” with “Anarch blunder” (NN PP 259).

Claude presumably thought deeply about how the Cephalus and Procris story related to the Psyche and Amor story as he painted them both in 1664. So, presumably, did Herman Melville as he wrote “After the Pleasure Party” with these late, framed, Claudean landscapes displayed in his home. In each of these “silvery” engravings, as in the “starlit” vigil of his female protagonist who will be “silvered no more,” the rich promise of human sexuality is undone by human fallibility in conjunction with divine cupidity.

Melville could not have seen the original 1664 oil painting from which John Browne engraved his Cephalus and Procris in 1779; that painting remained in private collections in England throughout his lifetime. Melville would have seen, however, Claude’s 1645 painting of the same subject. Claude’s Landscape with Cephalus and Procris Reunited by Diana (fig. 1) had been part of the Angerstein Collection from which the National Gallery was created in 1824 (Roethlisberger, Paintings, LV 163 and 91). Melville would have seen the earlier painting during his visits to the National Gallery in 1849 and 1857.

The two versions of this subject that Claude painted twenty years apart highlight as strongly as any two paintings could do the pictorial and psychological characteristics of his late style.

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Figure 1. Claude Lorrain. Landscape with Cephalus and Procris Reunited by Diana, oil on canvas, 1645. National Gallery London.

In the above version painted in 1645 Claude shows more of the landscape, less of the psychology. The number, size, and placement of the cattle in relation to the human figures make this a pastoral scene as much an a psychological one. The boy with the fatal spear is present but he is muted and color and distant from the primary figures; he could easily be mistaken for a wandering herdsman. This painting fits comfortably into the “landscape and” formula by which Claude paints a wide expansive landscape into which he introduces generic human figures whose presence is justified by a religious or mythological title.

Although the landscape style of the 1645 painting appears loose and generic in contrast to pictorial and emotive focus of its 1664 success, Claude had already been strongly drawn to the Cephalus and Procris subject. In 1645 or 1646 he painted another large-scale version of the same scene, this time with the figures reversed and the landscape drastically narrowed to give much more prominence to the scale, expression, and interaction of the human figures. This version had been commissioned by Prince Camillo Pamphilj and was later engraved by Volpato (Roethlisberger, LV 233). Melville would have seen this version when he visited the Doria-Pamphili Palace in Rome in March 1857, a month before he returned to its companion painting at The National Gallery in London. After commenting on portraits by Raphael and Titian at the Doria-Pamphili Palace, Melville wrote that “two large landscapes by Claude did not touch me. The ‘Gloaming’ is the best.” Melville’s “two large landscapes” were probably The Mill and The Temple of Apollo, the two most celebrated landscapes by Claude in that collection. The “Gloaming” may well refer to the Doria Pamphili version of Claude’s Cephalis and Procris, which is an evening scene with the setting sun out of sight to the right (NN J 111, 481-82, 128).

Claude had painted his earliest Landscape with Cephalis and Procris reunited by Diana a decade before the paintings Melville would have seen in London and Rome. Melville never saw the original 1636 version because it had gone to the Berlin Museum after being purchased by the King of Prussia in 1815. That painting had remained in the German State Museum until it was destroyed during World War II in 1945 (Roethlisberger, Paintings, LV 243). Melville did know this painting in the nineteenth-century engraving by A. H. Payne that he acquired for his own print collection. As we will see in our next catalog entry (CAT 130), this early painting successfully depicted the reunion among the three primary figures despite being in a broad landscape setting with significant subsidiary action.

Claude did create one additional painting of Cephalis and Procris but this one was much different in tone and action. Landscape with the Death of Procris is the only painting in which Claude addressed the tragic denouement that followed the heartfelt reconciliation brought about by Diana. A painting by that name with a suggested date of the mid-1640s has been at London’s National Gallery since Sir George Beaumont donated it in the 1820s. This painting has always been problematic due to its unusually “heavy atmosphere,” with a “yellow and red sun” and “brown sky.” That same painting had also been seriously damaged and “overpainted” over the years (see fig. 2). Roethlisberger considered this to be an inferior eighteenth-century copy of Claude’s lost original—or else Claude’s original so badly damaged and overpainted that it cannot be recognized (Paintings, LV 100). The National Gallery currently catalogs it as from the Studio of Claude.

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Figure 2. Claude Lorrain. Landscape with the Death of Procris, oil on canvas, c. 1646/47. National Gallery London.

Melville may have seen this problematic canvas on one or more of his visits to the National Gallery in 1849 or 1857. We do know that he did see the expert drawing that Claude made from his own Death of Procris because his drawing from the Liber Veritatis (LV 100) is reproduced in Melville’s copy of Dullea’s book on Claude Lorrain (fig. 3).

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Figure 3. Reproduction of Claude’s The Death of Procris from drawing no. 100 in the Liber Veritatis in Melville’s copy of Owen Dullea’s Claude Gellée Le Lorrain [author’s study photo from a Dullea reprint; I will get a better photo].

This drawing in Claude’s own hand leaves no doubt about what is depicted. The fatal spear has entered Procris’s doubting heart, Cephalus sees immediately what he has accidentally done, and the loyal dog who had represented hopefulness in the reconciliation scene can only join in the mourning. Roethlisberger indicates that this is one of the few Liber Veritatis drawings with no notation from Claude as to who had commissioned it, suggesting that he had perhaps created the original painting primarily for himself (Paintings, LV 100). This one tragic image from the Ovidian myth of Cephalus and Procris contrasts with Claude’s four separate images of the harmonious reconciliation scenes as sharply as the stormy sea in his Tempest etching and the stormy sky in his Flock in Stormy Weather etching contrast with the harmonious seas and skies seen throughout the rest of his forty five etchings (listed as nos. 5, 15, and 18 in Dullea’s Appendix D).

The reproduction of Claude’s etching of The Death of Procris is the last of thirteen drawings from the Liber Veritatis that are reproduced in Dullea’s book (Dullea also reproduced a portrait of Claude and two etchings). The thirteen Liber drawings and the two etchings reproduced in that book gave Melville a rich repository of images Claude had etched or drawn with his own hand. Those fifteen images, like the fifteen images by or after Claude in Melville’s own print collection, richly represent Claude’s versatility as a painter of mythological, pastoral, and landscape subjects. That very versatility is well represented in the six catalog entries in the next section that conclude our survey of prints Melville collected by and after Claude. That same versatility is also well represented in the selection of etchings and engravings from those reproduced in Melville’s copy of Dullea’s book that we feature in Melville Book Box 3.2.