Parting Thought on Garneray and Decamps
Like Melville himself, Garneray and Decamps were each adventurers who escaped their birthplace nations long enough to become citizens of the earth who used their artistic talents to heighten mankind’s appreciation for places, peoples, and species remote from conventional experience. No less than Melville’s Ishmael, Garneray and Decamps were “tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.” They too “love[d] to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts. . . since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place on lodges in” (NN MD 7).
Long before Melville went on his three-year whaling voyage into the South Seas in the early 1840s, exploring the Galapagos Islands and the peoples of Nukaheva along the way, Ambroise-Louis Garneray, born in 1783, had fought the British navy from French vessels in the Indian Ocean and along the east coast of Africa. After being captured while fighting the English closer to home, Garneray spent six years as a prisoner of war from 1808 until 1814. Returning to France after the defeat of Napoleon, he painted a series of French coastal scenes in the process of becoming the official painter of the French navy, in which capacity he was sent to Greece to document the Battle of Navarino against the Turks in 1827. Somewhere along the way, he learned enough about the whaling industry to paint the Sperm Whaling Scene and the Right Whaling Scene by the time young Melville had reached his teenage years.
Exhibiting the Battle of Navarino at the Paris Salon of 1831 brought Garneray before the wider French public much as publishing Typee in 1846 was to do for Melville in America. Garneray’s Battle of Navarino was among the battle scenes Melville admired at Versailles in early December 1849 when he was trying to sell the manuscript of White Jacket, his autobiographical novel about an American man-of-war, to an English publisher. Chapter 75 of that novel, published in 1850, gives a robust account of the Battle of Navarino.
Born in 1803, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps also left his first strong impression on French culture at the Salon of 1831, when he exhibited scenes of everyday Oriental life deriving from the visits he made “throughout Asia Minor and eastern North Africa” in 1828 after helping Garneray document the Battle of Navarino in Greece. In addition to being “the first major artist to travel extensively through the Near East,” Decamps is seen by many as the founding father of European Orientalism, in part by the strong influence his paintings were to have on paintings by Eugene Delacroix and the writing of Theodore Gautier. After a trip to Italy in 1835, Decamps began to paint biblical scenes which differed sharply from those of his predecessors by being set in actual landscapes Decamps had visited. Many of these works feature “a horizontal recession of space, with the principal activity taking place in a valley” (Mosby 8: 598). That kind of pictorial structure is conspicuous in Melville’s copy of Le Bergers et Le Loup that was published in Paris about the same time that Typee was being published in New York and London.
Decamps in his artistry went far back in time as well as far out in space. His most famous battle scene, The Defeat of the Cimbri, now at the Louvre, shown at the Paris Salon in 1834, dates to Roman history a century before the birth of Christ. The Cimbri were the first in a wave of Teutonic invaders who had come down from the north, and the painting gives more attention to the contours of the landscape than to distinguishing among the individual combatants at war in the heart of this valley. By definition, the biblical subjects Decamps began address in the late 1830s took him back in time. But they also took him across cultural divides, perhaps nowhere more tenderly than in Agar et Ismaël (Hagar and Ishmael), a small undated drawing now at the Louvre (fig. 1).