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Two Framed, Evocative Landscapes after Poussin

Two of Melville’s engravings after Nicolas Poussin survive today in Melville’s own frames. One was donated to the Berkshire Athenaeum by Herman’s granddaughter Eleanor Melville Metcalf. The other is being preserved by direct descendants of Eleanor’s sister Jeanette Ogden Chapin. One is a steel engraving from 1846, the other a mezzotint from 1786. Each print reproduced a well-known painting from a public collection. Melville saw the original painting from which each print was made during his trip to England and the Continent in 1849—one at the Louvre in Paris, the other at the National Gallery in London. Before Melville saw any original paintings by Poussin with his own eyes, however, he would have seen several through the words of William Hazlitt.

One painting in particular, Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (fig. 1 below), he would have known only through Hazlitt’s words. Commissioned by a French collector in 1658, the painting remained in Paris until 1743, when it was sold to the first in a series of English collectors eventually including Sir Joshua Reynolds, the last of whom sold it to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1924. Hazlitt’s “On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin” had appeared in the first London edition of his Table-Talk essays one century earlier, in 1824. Herman Melville was able to read Hazlitt’s essay in 1846 because he inherited a copy of the first American edition of Table-Talk, published in New York in 1845, from his brother Gansevoort, who had suddenly died in London in 1846 (Sealts no. 266a).

CAT 142 before Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun Poussin NY Met.jpg

Figure 1. Nicolas Poussin. Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun, oil on canvas, 1658. Acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1924.

Hazlitt devoted three substantial paragraphs to Blind Orion before discussing other paintings, primarily landscapes, by Poussin. In the catalog for an exhibition on Poussin and Nature at the Metropolitian Museum in 2008, Keith Christiansen acknowledged Hazlitt as having been the first commentator ever to see Poussin’s landscapes as superior to the history paintings for which he had previously been celebrated. Hazlitt, in the opening sentence of the essay “On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin,” showed that he was aware of the classical literary and mythological associations tracing Orion all the way back to Homer’s “classical Nimrod,” but he treats that tradition quite casually, saying only that Orion, “having lost an eye in some fray between the Gods and men, was told that if he would go to meet the rising sun, he would recover his sight” (66). What Christiansen celebrates above all else in Hazlitt is his ability to convey the ability of Poussin’s late landscapes to evoke immediate thoughts and feelings in the viewer entirely apart from what may have been Poussin’s own literary or mythological sources or intentions (Rosenberg and Christiansen, p. 17).

Poussin’s Orion, in Hazlitt’s words, “is represented setting out on his journey, with men on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the clouds greeting him. He stalks along, a giant upon the earth, as if just awakened from his sleep, or uncertain of his way; you see his blindness, though his back is turned. Mists range around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dark and fresh with dew . . . and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. Nothing has ever been more finely conceived. This picture breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, wanting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles.” Hazlitt sees each object in Poussin’s canvas as “imbued” with “one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms” by which we are “thrown back upon the original integrity of things” (66).

Herman Melville was 26 years old when Gansevoort died in London in May 1846. Typee, his first novel, had been published by John Murray in London in February and by Wiley in Putnam in New York in March. This fictional account of Melville’s own adventures among the native of Nukaheva after deserting his whaleship in the summer of 1842 was to remain more popular than any of the subsequent novels by the young American who had “lived among the cannibals.” Typee was also to remain the one Melville novel with the strongest affinities to Poussin’s Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun as described by Hazlitt in the American edition of Table-Talk that Herman was soon to inherit from Gansevoort. Gansevoort had acquired his copy of the First American Edition of Table-Talk in New York City in May 1845, two months before he had been appointed as Secretary to the American legation to London. Gansevoort had taken the manuscript of Typee with him to London, where it was accepted for publication by John Murray in December. In January, Gansevoort had read some of the manuscript to Washington Irving, whose recommendation led to the publication of the American edition of Typee in March by Wiley and Putnam, the firm that had published the First American Edition of Hazlitt’s Table-Talk the year before (Leyda 1:192). Some of the arrangements Gansevoort was making with Murray and Irving are likely to have been the subject of table-talk over the breakfast table of Samuel Rogers, with whom Murray and Irving had both been intimate for decades.

What kind of associations might young Melville, or anyone else, have made between his own first novel and Poussin’s Blind Orion as described by Hazlitt in the English and American editions of Table-Talk? The strongest one on the plot level comes early in chapters 6 and 7 of the novel as Melville’s narrator and his companion Toby “escape into the mountains” and make their way through one precipitous, luxuriant valley after another, as “unsure of [their] way” as they ascend each successive ridge as Orion and his companion are in Poussin’s painting. Even as they finally peer down into a more inviting valley with human habitation, they do not know whether it is peopled by the Happars they are seeking or “their enemies the ferocious Typees” (37-50). From the time the do descend into that valley, until the narrator, preceded by Toby, finally does “escape” back into civilization as he had previously known it, his experience of the landscape of the Typee valley and the people who inhabit it is itself “imbued,” no less than Poussin’s painting in Hazlitt’s description, with “one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms.” Melville’s Typee, much like Poussin’s Blind Orion, gives its nineteenth-century reader a sense of being “thrown back upon the original integrity of things” (66).

It is not only the novelty of the subject represented but the freshness of the artistic representation that relates the ethos and aesthetic of Melville’s story with those of Poussin’s painting as seen by Hazlitt. Hazlitt credits Poussin with a unique ability “to see nature through the glass of time; he alone has the right to be considered the painter of classical antiquity.” Melville’s depiction of the Marquesan landscape and those who people it answers to Hazlitt’s first condition for such a rare achievement: “he who can show the world in its first naked glory, with the hues of fancy spread over it.” Early in 1850, as he returned to New York after having written four more novels and seen the picture galleries of London and Paris for the first time, Melville will be ready, when writing Moby-Dick, to aspire to that more elevated condition of Hazlitt’s artist who can “see nature though the glass of time,” the condition of the artist who “teaches not only what nature is, but what she has been, and is capable of being,--he who does this, and does it with simplicity, with truth, and with grandeur, is lord of nature and her powers; and his mind is universal, and his art the master art!” (67-68).

Poussin was able to do this in Blind Orion, Hazlitt suggests, not only because “he could give to the scenery of his heroic fable the unimpaired look of original nature, full, solid, large, luxuriant, teeming with life and power,” but also because he, “like his Orion," is able to "overlook the surrounding scene” and “with a laborious and mighty grasp, put nature into the mould of the ideal and antique.” Such a painter “does not neglect or contravene nature, but follows her more closely up into her fantastic heights, or hidden recesses. He demonstrates what she would be in conceivable circumstances, and under implied conditions. . . . At his touch, words start up into images, thoughts become things. He clothes a dream, a phantom with form and colour, and the wholesome attributes of reality. His art is a second nature, not a different one” (67-68). This most elevated condition of artistic expression is what Melville gives us through Ishmael’s consciousness in the “Mast-Head” chapter of Moby-Dick.

Melville in chapter 35 of Moby-Dick depicts Ishmael higher above the deck of the ship than is Poussin’s Blind Orion above ridge of the valley. He invites his reader to identify with the young sailor: “There you stand, a hundred feet about the silent decks.” He imagines young Ishmael “striding the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts” (thereby making him an extension of Hazlitt’s “giant upon the earth” who “stalks upon” the painted landscape). Just as Hazlitt augments the height of Poussin’s Orion by giving him “men on his shoulders to guide him,” Melville deepens his depiction of Ishmael’s height above the ocean by asking the reader to imagine that, “beneath your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea” (NN MD 156).

Ishmael’s “thoughts become things” in the “unconscious reverie” through which “the mystic ocean at his feet” becomes “the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind; and every strange, half-seen, gliding beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible from, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually running through it.” In this enchanted state, “there is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling and ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God” (159). Yet in Melville’s world, as in Poussin’s, this unconscious reverie remains anchored in the physical world: “while this sleep is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one-half throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise forever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!” (NN MD 159.

The cautionary qualification that Ishmael has appended to the most transcendental moment in the entire novel accords well with the one theme that Pierre Rosenberg sees as the running through all of the “Landscapes in a Noble and Heroic Style” at the Poussin exhibition in New York in 2008: “the symbiosis between humans, with their dramas, and an atemporal nature, heedless of and insensible to the everyday and the present” (Rosenberg and Christiansen, p. 118).

After his extended disquisition on Poussin’s Blind Orion “stalking” across the primaeval landscape, Hazlitt surveys the French painter’s oeuvre in a more general way. Hazlitt sees Poussin as the most “poetical” of all painters because of his ability to “paint ideas.” Poussin “succeeded better in his classic than in his sacred subjects” because his religious characters sometimes lack “true prophetic inspiration,” whereas the figures in “his Pagan allegories and fables. . . have everywhere sense and meaning.” In style, “his Nymphs and Fauns, are superior . . . even to those of Rubens” because they “are taken more directly out of fabulous history.” And in “the more chaste and refined delineation of a classic fable, Poussin was without a rival” (69).

Hazlitt’s supreme example of Poussin’s unmatched artistry in classic fable is the subject of our next entry, Melville’s framed print of The Shepherds of Arcadia (CAT 142). Twenty years after having seen Poussin’s original painting among all the other treasures at the Louvre, Hazlitt recalls “the picture of the shepherds in the vale of Tempe going out in a fine morning of the spring, and coming to a tomb with this inscription:--Et ego in Arcadia vixi!" He remembers the "eager curiosity" of one shepherd and "the expression of others who start back with fear and surprise." Hazlitt still feels "the clear breeze playing with the branches of the shadowing trees" as "the distant uninterrupted, sunny prospects speak (and will forever speak on) of ages past and ages yet to come!” (71).