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Six Outline Engravings From the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings

The six images inspired by the life and work of Nicolas Poussin that Herman Melville acquired from London’s Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings date from the maturity of Herman’s father Allan Melvill (1782-1830) and may have been acquired during one of Allan’s voyages to London and Paris as a young Bostonian with cultural ambitions who was establishing himself as an importer of merchandise from France for an upper-middle class clientele. In 1802-03, the short-lived peace between England and France allowed young Allan, who had just turned twenty, to spend considerable time in both London and Paris during the grand tour that introduced him to the artistic treasures of both cities while also making contacts that would assist his aspirations as an entrepreneur importing goods from France. In 1818, Herman’s future father, who had recently established his business in New York City, was able to again make an extended visit to England and France, this time during the more extended peace that had followed the defeat of the French at Waterloo in 1815. 

On August 1, 1819, less than a year after Allan Melvill had returned from his 1818 voyage to England and France, his son Herman was born in the family home on Pearl Street, near the tip of Manhattan. As the father moved his import business to increasingly desirable locations up Broadway toward Bleeker Street, his growing family moved to one new residence after another; Herman had become the third of five children by 1825. Herman’s depiction of the childhood home in his autobiographical novel Redburn is dominated by the stories that Redburn’s father, “now dead,” had told before the “old sea-coal fire in old Greenwich-street” about the “monstrous waves sea, mountain-high” he had braved during his voyages “across the Atlantic on business affairs.” The walls of the family home on Greenwich-street featured “several oil-paintings and rare engravings of my father’s, which he himself had bought in Paris hanging up in the dining room.” In addition, “we had two large green French portfolios of colored prints, more than I could lift at that age,” that he and his siblings would “gaze . . . at with never-failing delight” every Sunday (NN R 5-7).

Enhancing these attractions in the hallway was “an old brown library-case” through whose glass windows one could see “old books, that had been printed in Paris, and London, and Leipzig,” including “a fine library edition of the Spectator, in six large volumes with gilded backs” and “the word ‘London’ on the title-page” (R 7). This is the kind of New York City home in the mid-1820s that could well have had “rare engravings” after paintings by Poussin on its walls or portfolios—or volumes of the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings in its library case.

The outline engravings and letterpress text published in seven volumes in the Historic Gallery in London between 1807 and 1819 helped to prepare the English public, as well as American merchants seeking cultural credentials, with images and information that helped to spark the extraordinary rise in public literacy about the visual arts symbolized by the founding of London’s National Gallery in 1824. This propitious event was itself preceded by the brilliant sequence of essays William Hazlitt had published in the London Magazine from 1822 to 1823 and gathered together as “Sketches of the Principal Galleries of England” in 1824, reprinted by Hazlitt’s son William in the 1843 edition of his father’s Criticisms on Art that Herman Melville was to acquire in 1870 ( Sealts no. 266a; Avery-Quash in Tate Papers).

William Hazlitt (1788-1830) was an exact contemporary of Alan Melvill. He too took advantage of the temporary peace between England and France in 1802 and 1803 to make his first extended visit to Paris. The paintings that young Hazlitt, like young Melvill, saw at the Louvre were then the most extraordinary collection of paintings in the world (in part because so many of them had recently arrived as spoils of war from Napoleon’s invasion of Italy and other European countries). Hazlitt’s evocative, impassioned account of his encounter with the paintings in the Louvre in the essay on “On the Pleasure of Painting” that he reprinted in his Table-Talk collection in 1824—and that Melville was to annotate in the American edition of Table-Talk that he acquired in 1846—was to be passionately echoed in the personal encounter with the paintings at the Louvre that Melville was to recall in Pierre in 1852, inspired by his own first visit to the Louvre in 1849 (NN P 350; J 42-43).

Whether the six images after Nicholas Poussin engraved for the Historic Gallery between 1807 and 1810 were collected by Alan Melvill on his extended visit to London in 1818 or by his son Herman during his own visits to London and its galleries in 1849 and 1857—or else by Herman as he began to build his own collection of “rare old engravings” in New York—those six outline engravings depicting Poussin himself and five of his artworks would have evoked for Melville strong images of not only his father (who had died as a bankrupt in Albany, New York, before Herman was twelve years old) and of William Hazlitt (whose essays were young Herman’s first intimate guide to the pleasures of painting), but also of Herman's older brother Gansevoort, from whom he had inherited his 1845 edition of Table-Talk when Gansevoort suddenly died in London in 1846 at age thirty. Pictorially, of course, those six outline images after Poussin from the History Gallery would have reminded Melville of many of the original artworks he had seen at the at the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris in 1849.

Six Outline Engravings From the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings