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Four Seaports after Claude

The four Claudean seaport scenes in this section were all in the homes of direct descendants of Herman Melville when I saw them for the first time. The surprising absence of any images after Claude Lorrain in the first group of 278 prints that surfaced from the Berkshire Athenaeum in 1986 was bountifully answered from the prints that emerged from the collections of Priscilla Ambrose, Bart Chapin, and Melville Chapin in the 1990s.

After I had published my inventory of the prints at the Berkshire Athenaeum, Hershel Parker suggested that Priscilla Ambrose, a great-granddaughter of Melville living in Irving, Virginia, might still be preserving prints from his collection. Soon after I inquired, she invited me to visit. What a joy it was to see two atmospheric seaport scenes from Richard Earlom’s celebrated 1774-75 edition of Claude’s Liber Variorum (CAT 124 and 125) in her living room. John Ruskin would have been happy to see that Priscilla also had engravings of two dramatic seaport scenes by J. M. W. Turner (Dutch Boats in a Gale and Calais Pier, CAT numbers to be assigned) to compare with them. She had also been preserving two atmospheric landscapes after Herman Swanevelt, Claude’s longtime colleague and housemate (CAT 209 and 210), and another by Richard Wilson, one of Claude's earliest English followers (CAT number to be assigned). These prints in the Ambrose Collection were already introducing me not only to two of the most beautiful prints after Claude’s Liber Veritatis but also to the wider pictorial context in which Melville had collected them (see Wallace, “The Ambrose Group,” 1995, 13-50).

Seeing two celebrated prints after Claude Lorrain in the Ambrose Collection in April 1994 made me hope and expect that other prints after Claude might emerge in the personal collections of other descendants. Sure enough, the Bart Chapin Collection that I visited in Maine two months later had five prints by or after Claude. Two of those were etchings by Claude that we saw in our previous section (CAT 122 and 123). Bart Chapin was also preserving three of Melville’s engravings after Claude: one of the seaport scenes featured in this section (CAT 126) and two additional engravings in sections to follow (CAT 132 and 135).

The visit to Bart Chapin in 1994 led me to the home of his older brother Melville (Mel) Chapin in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one year later. There I had the pleasure of seeing seven more engravings after Claude from Melville’s collection. One of five unframed prints is one of the four seascapes in this section (CAT 125). The two framed engravings I saw in Cambridge are the subject of our next section (CAT 128 and 129).

One of Melville’s seaport scenes after Claude (CAT 124) derived from the painting of a Harbour Scene, now lost, that Claude had “apparently dated Naples 1636.” Roethlisberger suggests that Claude’s stay in Naples “was probably a short one,” since all his Liber drawings were signed in Rome, but he does note that “five works inscribed pour Napoli from 1636 to 1639 might suggest that the commissions were placed when he was there” (Paintings, LV 6, pp. 106-07). The essay in The Art-Journal in 1859 that accompanied Melville’s engraving of another early Claudean harbor scene, The Sea-Port from the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle (CAT 126), declared that Claude had spent two years in Naples “gaining proficiency in the knowledge of perspective” (“A Sea-Port,” 52). The atmospherics of these and other prints after Claude’s early seaport scenes might well have reminded Melville of the atmospherics of the Bay of Naples he had experienced directly in April 1857—and that he could later revisit in his home in New York City in his copy of the color lithograph of Samuel Read’s Bay of Naples that had been published in The London Illustrated News in 1860 (CAT 120).

Claude’s 1639 oil painting An Artist Studying from Nature, now at the Cincinnati Art Museum (fig. 1), offers unique insight into his development as a painter of seaports.

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Figure 1. Claude Lorrain. An Artist Studying from Nature, oil on canvas, 1639. Cincinnati Art Museum.

Roethlisberger notes that the above painting represents a “unique picture type” in Claude's career. As “a coast view with genre figures,” this painting is “distinct from both the seaports and the lonely coastal views” (Paintings, LV 44, pp. 176-77). It is also unique in depicting the artist who is conspicuously sitting on the near edge of the ancient ruins in the foreground, studying the picturesque diversity of not only the people who are passing immediately before him but also of the sailors who are unloading the vessel that is just offshore, their action framed by the expansive nautical world from which those sailors have presumably brought the goods they are now bringing to the shore. If we imagine the conspicuously seated painter who is attentively studying all the elements in motion immediately before him to be Claude Lorrain himself, we can also be certain that he also studied with equal intensity the shadowed façade of the castle that is anchored so securely in the hillside high to his right as well as the masts of the huge seagoing vessel that tower high above the castle itself.

Claude, like Turner, is often criticized for his awkward depiction of human figures. Art critics routinely refer to the people who populate his landscape as “staffage” who could be removed without any significant loss. But Claude, like Turner, did have a gift for depicting generic human figures at work in the open air of the natural environment. We can see this by taking a close look at the sailors who are unloading the coastal cargo vessel in the lower left quadrant of An Artist Studying from Nature (fig. 2).

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Figure 2. Detail from Claude Lorrain, An Artist Studying from Nature.

Consider the sailor leaning out from high on the mast to the right to pull on the rigging that controls its spar. And his shipmate down on deck pulling the other spar closer in to its mast. And their crouching crewmates working to pull some heavy bundle up onto the ramp across which yet another shipmate is already carrying a large bundle in toward the shore. Immediately beyond him to the right are two sailors pushing a large load in small boat over toward the stern of a large sea-going vessel whose one visible sailor is maneuvering its rudder, perhaps to make room for the small boat to approach. The diagonal line extending from the sailor pulling on the rudder of the huge ship down through the poles of the sailors who are pushing the tiny boat to the sailor carrying his bundle across the ramp creates a lovely horizontal rhythm in contrast to the strong vertical thrust of the masts and spars of the coastal cargo vessel. The men depicted in the painting are too focused on their work to savor the beauty of the early evening light by which they are bathed in the way the painter or the viewer can, but they, even more than we, can feel it in their bones.

Whether Claude made his own studies for this 1639 painting in Naples or in some other city along the Italian coast, its pictorial structure displays that “proficiency in knowledge of perspective” that was to characterize his mature landscape style for the next thirty years. All the way across from the left to the right and all the way up through the action in the foreground to the most distant vanishing point on the horizon, Claude deploys a complex ensemble of diverse objects, spaces, and walks of life in a way to make us feel we are looking at a real-life scene rather than a free-association pastiche from a painter’s pictorial memory. Within this visually integrated miscellany of extremely diverse visual stimulants, Claude does include one tightly integrated inset scene that in itself could have enough visual impact to fill an entire canvas as large as this one, that being the one we have singled out in which he depicts a coastal cargo vessel whose sailors are unloading its goods onto the shore from which we see, stretching endlessly beyond them, the open sea from which they have come.

Move the foreground of this painting even closer to the shore, populate its narrowed seaside stage with a cast of sailors with the cargo they have brought ashore, dwarf these elements as tiny figures against the immense expanse of the marine mysteries over which they have passed, all of this illuminated not only by the atmospheric effects of a rising or setting sun but by the presence of the sun itself directly above the horizon, transforming the appearance of the water it touches and experience of the sailors it enlightens—do all this and you have the formula for the classical seaport scenes that soon caused Claude to seen as the first artist to directly depict the action of the sun in illuminating the natural world. Claude did not achieve this effect simply by eliminating other pictorial elements such as the large castle that anchors the right side of An Artist Studying from Nature or the huge seagoing vessel whose mastheads and flags float high above it. In Claude’s classic seaport scenes, elements such as these are deployed at right angles to the shore on either side of the canvas to frame and concentrate the direct flow of light from the solar sphere through the air, over the water, and directly into the eyes and minds of the viewer, touching everything along the way with light and shadow that let our eyes know everything is always changing in a process by which our minds come to realize it all remains the same.

The pictorial formula of the classical seaport scene briefly outlined above is the one Claude was in the process of mastering in the next three engravings from Melville’s collection.