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Parting Thought on the Salons of 1879 and 1880

As a young thirty-year-old in late 1849, Melville’s only opportunity to see a variety of world-class artworks came on the voyage to England and the Continent during which he visited the principal picture galleries of London during his six weeks in that city, the Louvre and Versailles during his one week in Paris, and the Cologne Cathedral during his one full day in that city.

As a thirty-eight-year-old early in 1857, returning from his voyage to the eastern Mediterranean, Melville explored masterworks of Italian painting and architecture for two full months in Italy before crossing the Alps and briefly sampling museums in Germany and the Netherlands and then visiting the National and Turner Galleries in London.

When Melville landed in New York City on the way back home to Pittsfield in May 1857, that city was just beginning to overcome its reputation as a pictorial desert, full of fake European Old Masters, that Melville had satirized in Pierre in 1852 (NN P 349-50). In 1857, M. Knoedler and Company, which had succeeded Goupil and Company at 366 Broadway, hosted the first exhibition of French paintings in America. Soon after, the printsellers Williams, Stevens, and Williams exhibited Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair at 353 Broadway. Also in 1857, the National Academy of Design, at Broadway and Tenth Street, held its own pioneering exhibition British and French paintings (Barratt, 70-74, 79-80). By 1865, the National Academy of Design had moved into a new building at 23rd and Park Avenue, its Gothic Renaissance architecture inspired by the Ducal Palace in Venice (fig. 1).

CAT 181 PT fig 1 National Academy_of_Design_(1865;_razed) Wikipedia.jpg

Figure 1. National Academy of Design, completed in 1865 at 23rd Street and Park Avenue, New York City.

From the time Melville moved with his family to 104 East 26th Street in New York City in 1863, the city’s galleries, auction houses, museums, and private collectors were actively collecting and exhibiting paintings of the kind Melville desired and acquired for his own print collection. Beginning in 1886, when Melville retired from the Custom House at age 67, the American Art Association at 6 East 23rd Street, M. Knoedler and Company at Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street, and the National Academy of Design at Park Avenue and 23rd Street were all mounting high-profile exhibitions by contemporary French painters. In 1887 and 1889, donations by Henry Hilton, Edwin Davis, and Catherine Lorillard Wolfe to the Metropolitan Museum in Central Park brought paintings by Meisonnier, Manet, Decamps, Leroux, and Toulmouche into that Museum’s permanent collection while Melville was himself collecting prints after these same painters.

By 1890 the flow of contemporary French paintings from the Paris Salon into New York galleries and museums was increasingly featuring the Barbizon painters. Melville, after having acquired the 1882 New York edition of John Mollett’s Meissonier, purchased the 1890 New York editions of Mollett’s two books on The Painters of the Barbizon, one on Corot, Daubigny, and Dupré, the other on Millet, Rousseau, and Diaz (Sealts nos. 360-362). In 1891, the last year of Melville’s life, he could have seen French paintings by Bonheur, Breton, Corot, Couture, Daubigny, Diaz, Decamps, Dupré, Leroux, Meissonier, Rousseau, and Toulmouche in the New Western Gallery of the Metropolitan Museum and paintings by Bonheur, Dupré, Manet, and Meissonier in the Museum’s Old Western Gallery (Hand-book, No. 1: December 1890 to April 1891). In April of that year a loan exhibition from various potential donors in the Museum’s Eastern Gallery included paintings by Corot, Daubigny, Decamps, Diaz, and Dupré (Hand-book No. 6: April to November 1891). One can easily imagine Melville visiting all three of these galleries during the last year of his life, comparing the illustrations of the six Barbizon artists in his two new books by Mollett with actual paintings by these and other contemporary French painters on the walls of the Museum.