Skip to main content

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).

CAT 172 after, fig 1 decamps Agar et Ishmael.jpg

Figure 1. Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. Agar et Ismaël, charcoal drawing, undated. The Louvre, Paris.

Decamps has here depicted the mother and child who had been cast out of what has become the Judeo-Christian tradition in the action that became the germ of the Islamic tradition against which Jewish and Christian believers in many parts of the world are still in mortal as well as moral combat. From the biblical Abraham down to the present day, the worldwide human community has found it impossible to “be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in” (NN MD 7).

How did Decamps get to this highly sensitive treatment of this young boy who could say, with the narrator of Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael?” First, perhaps, by becoming curious enough about the Turks and Egyptians who were defeated at the Battle of Navarino to travel through their lands and learn about their peoples and cultures. And then by bringing a nuanced understanding to his depiction of not only biblical history but of those peoples who had been severed from it. It is not surprising that the man who had drawn the above image of Hagar and Ishmael would be sensitive to the conscious agency of the wolf as well as to the fate of the lamb when creating his own depiction of La Fontaine’s “The Wolf and the Shepherds.”  Nor is such sensitivity to the agency of animals, while satirizing humans, surprising in the painter who displayed The Monkey Painter at the Salon of 1833.

How, then, did Garneray, who spent so much of his formative life attacking human enemies at sea, show such evident sympathy and admiration for the cetacean “enemies” in his Sperm Whaling Scene and Right Whaling Scene? Perhaps the personal risk of being a French privateer began to outbalance the glory, especially after he got injured, was captured, and spent six years imprisoned by his enemy. Perhaps learning the English language during that confinement, and being commissioned to paint portraits by an English merchant, gave him a different view of that enemy. Becoming a professional artist after being released would have given him a different perspective on the warfare he had lived and witnessed. The boarding of the British ship Triton by the crew of the French corsair le Hasard in 1796 achieved a notable victory in French maritime history, but Garneray’s depiction of it, decades after the event, engraved by Jean Charles Pardinel, exposes the sheer brutality of it for sailors of both nations (fig. 2). 

CAT 172 after, fig 2 Abordage du Triton par le Corsair le Hazard,.jpg

Fig. 2. Pardinel after Garneray. Abordage du Triton par le Corsaire le Hasard, c. 1820s. Royal Museums, Greenwich, UK.

Stuart Frank compares the “hand-to-hand” combat of the above engraving with that in “the Navarino passages” in Melville’s White-Jacket (p. 75). Writing that chapter five years after his own service on the American warship U. S. S. United States, Melville grants the manly grandeur of crew member Jack Chase in telling of his own exploits in the Navarino battle, but he concludes that “Solder or sailor, the fighting man is but a fiend; and the staff and body-guard of the Devil musters many a baton.” This battle did “achieve the emancipation of Greece” from the tyranny of the Turks, but “all events are mixed in fusion indistinguishable” (NN WJ 320). For Garneray, perhaps the process of documenting and depicting the Battle of Navarino in the company of Decamps for the French navy gave him, like Decamps, a new curiosity and interest in the Turkish enemy and the lands and culture they represented. And perhaps that new curiosity and interest extended to the experience of the cetacean “enemy” in the Sperm Whaling Scene and the Right Whaling Scene.

For Melville, the process of writing about his experiences with the native peoples of Nukaheva in Typee, and with his fellow crewmembers on the U. S. S. United States in White Jacket, and with whalers and whales in Moby-Dick is what transformed the raw data of his three-year voyage into the South Seas into the cross-cultural, postcolonial, ecological, interspecies consciousness we value so highly today. The prints he acquired after Garneray’s two Whaling Scenes and Decamps’ The Wolf and the Shepherds relate to his own artistry most clearly in their sympathetic depiction of animals demonized by the culture in which each artist lived. Melville, Garneray, and Decamps all achieved their interspecies consciousness after traveling to remote lands and engaging with people of different belief systems. In the process of becoming an artist, each then learned to “be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place on lodges in,” animals included.