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Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba


CAT 125. Richard Earlom after Claude Lorrain. Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba. From the Original Drawing in the Collection of the Duke of Devonshire. No. 114 in the Liber Veritatis. London: John Boydell, 1775. Ambrose Family Collection.

Claude’s ability to “paint the air” is equally evident in Earlom’s 1775 mezzotint of the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba. Here the frontal sun is directly exposed, with pencil-like rays as evident as they are in the corresponding Liber drawing (LV 114). Here the shadows cast by the boats and other objects are thicker and wider, the contrast of the morning light on the edges of the human forms more dramatic, the spread of the illumination in the breadth of the sky and on the face of the buildings more broad. Claude created the oil painting from which this image derives in 1648. In 1803 the painting entered the Angerstein Collection, which in 1824 became the foundation of London’s National Gallery. The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba soon became one of the best-known and best-loved of Claude’s paintings, one that Melville is certain to have seen when he visited the still young National Gallery twenty-five years later, in 1849. Melville visited the gallery at least three times during his six weeks in London, on November 8, 12, and December 17 (NN J 14, 16, 42). He also came to know the National Gallery, and the Angerstein Collection which formed its pictorial core, in the essay on “Mr. Angerstein’s Collection” from Hazlitt’s Sketches on the Picture Galleries of England (included in Sealts no. 263a).

Melville found much to admire in the copy of this essay that he acquired in Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art in 1870. In its rapturous opening paragraph, Melville underlined the phrase “second course” in Hazlitt’s exclamatory invocation: “Oh! Art, lovely Art! ‘Balm of hurt minds, chief nourisher in life’s feast, great Nature’s second course!’” Hazlitt began the second paragraph by declaring that “we know of no greater treat than to be admitted freely to a Collection of this sort.” There we "enter the minds of Raphael, of Titian, of Poussin, and of the Carracci, and look at nature with their eyes." Melville drew a long line next to Hazlitt's further declaration that “the business of the world at large, and its pleasures, appear like a vanity and an impertinence. What signify the hubbub, the shifting scenery, the fantoccini figures, the folly, the fashions without, when compared with the solitude, the silence, the speaking looks, the unfading forms within?—Here is the mind’s true home.  The contemplation of truth and beauty is the proper object for which we were created, which calls forth the most intense desires of the soul, and of which it never tires” (Criticisms, 1-3; MMO 263a.002).

Many writers would have concluded a paragraph with that stirring declaration, but Hazlitt is only a third of the way through this one. Melville’s vertical line in the margin follows along as Hazlitt now declares that “A capital print-shop . . . is a point to aim at in a morning’s walk—a relief and satisfaction in the motley confusion, the littleness, the vulgarity of the common life: but a print shop has but a mean, cold, meager, petty appearance, after coming out of a fine Collection of Pictures. We want the size of life, the marble flesh, the rich tones of nature, the diviner expanded expression.” Even so, Hazlitt now acknowledges, in words underlined by Melville, that “Good prints are, no doubt, better than bad pictures.” To clarify: “prints, generally speaking, are better than pictures; for we have more prints of good pictures than of bad ones; yet they are for the most part but hints, loose memorandums, outlines in little of what the painter has done. . . . Throw open the folding-doors of a fine Collection, and you have all you have desired realized at a blow—the bright originals starting up in their own proper shape, clad with flesh and blood, and teeming with the first conception of the painter’s mind!” (3; MMO 263a.003).

Again, where Hazlitt might have concluded his paragraph he is but two-thirds done. Reversing course again, “the disadvantage of pictures is that they cannot be multiplied to any extent, like books or prints; but this, in another point of view, operates probably as an advantage, by making the sight of a fine individual picture an event so much more memorable, and the impression so much deeper. . . . The ancients, before the invention of printing, were nearly in the same situation, with respect to books, that we are with regard to pictures.” Melville drew a marginal line alongside the sentence with which Hazlitt concluded this historical riff on pictures, prints, and books (and underlined the two phrases I underline here): “Literature was not then cheap and vulgar, nor was there what is called a reading public; and the pride of intellect, like the pride of art, or the pride of birth, was confined to the privileged few!” (3-4; MMO 263a.004). When Hazlitt gets around to discussing specific “pictures” within Mr. Angerstein’s collection, Melville marks the paragraph in which he praises two Claude Embarkation scenes, of St. Ursula and of the Queen of Sheba. Hazlitt notes that while he was visiting the collection, “a lady had been making a good copy” of the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (13-14).

J.M.W. Turner first saw the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba very soon after it arrived at Mr. Angerstein’s collection in 1803. As the “young painter” was looking at the painting, Mr. Angerstein entered the room. Turner appeared “agitated,” and when Angerstein spoke to him he “broke into tears.” When Angerstein asked the cause, Turner “said passionately, ‘Because I shall never be able to paint any thing like that picture.’” As Eric Shanes notes, it was not until one decade later that Turner was prepared to challenge this painting directly by exhibiting his Dido Building Carthage at the Royal Academy in 1815 (Turner’s Human Landscape, 191-92). Turner associated the two paintings in his own mind for the rest of his lift, specifying in his will that Dido Building Carthage be given to London’s National Gallery only on the condition that it hang next to Claude’s Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, where it can be seen to this day (fig. 1 below). Turner’s love for this and other seaports by Claude is well documented in the books Melville acquired about both Claude and Turner by Dullea, Monkhouse, and Ruskin.

CAT 124 fig 1 Claude Embarkation Queen of Sheba National Gallery.jpg

Fig. 1. Claude Lorrain. Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, oil on canvas, 1648. National Gallery London.

Although the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba contains many pictorial elements similar to those in Claude’s seaports of the mid-1630s, this 1648 painting displays his evolving middle-period style. These are nicely summarized in Roethlisberger’s analysis of Claude’s Liber drawing (LV 114): “The present work is more masterly in the atmospherical subtleties, the spatial arrangement, and the simplification of the setting into fewer, larger forms. The style of the architecture is more advanced that in the earlier works” (p. 245). All these qualities are easily seen by contrasting Melville’s copy of Earlom’s mezzotint after this painting with his mezzotint after the seaport painted a decade earlier (CAT 124).

Roethlisberger notes that the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba is “the sole painting by Claude of this subject, derived from 1 Kings 10:1, which gives however no details.” Moreover, “the particular scene of the embarkation of the Queen of Sheba is unique in painting, although another scene of the story—Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba—ranks among the most popular in 17th-century art” (Paintings, p. 285). For pictorial extensions of the latter subject, Melville could turn to the fourteen images of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba he had collected from Suderman’s seventeenth-century emblem books (CAT 51-63).