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Parting Thought on Three Centuries of French Painting

Until assembling the prints and writing the text for this chapter, I hand not realized what a wide range of French artistic and social history was covered by Melville’s print collection. Certain prints cataloged in other chapters add to that history as well. The prints of the Monastère of Cazzafani in Cyprus and the Monument Sépulchal des Rois de Juda in Chapter 1, published after drawings by Cassas in 1798-99 (CAT 17 and 18), are products of the French penetration into the Near East during the period in which David, Regnault, Peyron, and Taillasson were exhibiting at the Salon of Paris in the wake of the Revolution. Longhi’s 1806 engraving of Napoleon as Emperor of France and King of Italy in Chapter 2 is as much a part of French history as it is of Italian (CAT 117). The twenty-three etchings that Melville collected from Reveil’s 1833 Paris edition of the Oeuvre Complet de Flaxman (CAT 2-5 and 80-102) were part of French publishing history as well as of Greek and Italian literary history and English pictorial history.

Melville’s literary concern with the social and political history of French first surfaced in his allegorical treatment if the Revolution of 1848 in chapter 153 of Mardi in 1849—in which a a volcanic eruption overruns the king of Franko in “Rhines and Rhones of lava” (NN M 498-99). In chapter 40 of Moby-Dick in 1851, Ishmael explored the psyche of Ahab by channeling Melville’s own visit to the Hotel Cluny in Paris in 1849, taking the reader “far beneath the fantastic towers of man’s upper earth,” where “his root of grandeur, his whole awful essence sits in bearded state” (NN MD 185). Melville’s own visits to the Louvre and Versailles December 1849 inform his tribute to the “painted gauntlet of the gods” in Pierre in 1852, a novel in which Isabel’s mysterious French heritage and the closet portrait of Pierre’s father draw upon the period of family history in which Herman’s father Allan and uncle Tom were active in the Parisian world of Madame Recamier (NN P 350, 74-82; see CAT 169 PT and MBB 3.5). 

By the time Melville published such poems as “After the Pleasure Party” and “The Marchioness de Brinvilliers” in Timoleon in 1891, everything he wrote about France was informed by a print collection of impressive range and depth (see, for example, CAT 128 and MBB 3.3). Similarly informed in poems left uncompleted at his death were the pictorial conversations involving Claude, Poussin, and Watteau in “At the Hostelry” (see our section on “Veronese in Melville’s Print Collection and ‘At the Hostelry’” in CAT 110) and the pointed allusion to the French Revolution in “An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba” (NN BBO 193-94). The manuscript of Billy Budd is set during the navel wars between the British and the French in 1797, when the fear aroused by the Nore Mutiny spread through the British fleet “as by live cinders blown across the Channel from France in flames” (NN BBO 12).

In May 1891, during the last few months of Melville’s life, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a two-part exhibition in its Old Eastern Galleries. Part 1 featured Old Master Paintings that the Museum had collected since its founding in the early 1870s. The 118 Old Master paintings from the Museum’s own collection were dominated by 16-Century Dutch and Flemish painters, many of whom were also represented the print collection Melville had himself been assembling in his home on East 26th Street, the latter including David Teniers, Jan Both, Nicholas Berchem, Adrian Van Ostade, Gaspar Netscher, Gerard Terburg, Anton van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Wouverman, and Meindert Hobbema. The “Introduction” to the Handbook for this exhibition acknowledged that “the larger number of pictures by old masters owned by the Museum belong to the 17th century Dutch and Flemish schools,” those schools having produced “the most successful painters of the age” (Hand-book no. 6, 1891, pp. 1-13).

Part 2 was a Loan Exhibition from a variety of collectors who were considering making loans to the Museum. This group of eighty paintings also included several Dutch Old Masters, including two more painters, Rembrandt and Cuyp, who were represented in Melville’s print collection. But influential private collectors were also becoming interested in contemporary paintings from France, which “has produced its best paintings in the 19th century.” This high-profile Loan Exhibition of potential donations to the Metropolitan Museum included paintings by several 19th century French painters also represented in Melville’s print or book collections: two by Decamps, including Environs of Smyrna; two by Dupré, including The Gleaners; one by Diaz, Forest of Fontainebleau; one by Corot, Tiger Seeking Prey; and one by Daubigney, The Afterglow (Hand-book no. 6, 1891, pp. 1-3, 15-21).

One wonders if Melville, given his strong interest in both Dutch Old Master and contemporary French paintings, had an opportunity to see this two-part exhibition during the last four months of his life. If so, both the Old Master exhibition with an emphasis on Dutch and Flemish painters, and the Loan Exhibition strong in both in Old Master Dutch and modern French painters, would have been highly stimulating for the man who had collected the Three Centuries of French Painters we have examined in this chapter as well as the Dutch and Flemish Old Masters awaiting us in Chapter 4.

Parting Thought on Three Centuries of French Painting