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Landscape with a Man washing his Feet at a Fountain

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CAT 143. W. Pether after N. Poussin. Landscape with a Man washing his Feet at a Fountain, oil painting, 1648. Published May 1, 1786 by W. Pether, No. 12 Frith St., Soho, London. From the painting now at the National Gallery London. E. Barton Chapin Jr. Family Collection.

This is another grand folio print from the period of Woollett’s Enchanted Castle (in a frame to match from a shop only a few blocks from Melville’s house on East 26th Street). Published in London in 1786, Pether’s engraving of Poussin’s Landscape with a Man washing his Feet at a Fountain is another print that helped to define the canon of classical landscape painting in England. The original painting passed from the private collection of Sir George Beaumont to London’s National Gallery in 1826. Melville would have seen it there in 1849 and again on his return from the eastern Mediterranean in 1857. One can imagine how differently it might have looked to him on those two visits.

In 1849, a few years after publishing Typee, the young novelist might have compared its luxuriant foliage to that in the valley of the Typee. In 1857, after his strenuous trek over the unforgiving stones of the environs of Jerusalem, he might have identified more with the traveler washing his feet at the fountain. Having had his faith, as well as his feet, tested in the stony wastes of Judea, he might also have been intrigued by the man beneath the tree in the mid-distance whose rapt devotion to some kind of votive offering anticipates the spiritual absorption of Nehemiah in Clarel, the “Votary” whose “unselfish” faith remains unbroken (NN C 1.8.9).

Poussin in this painting offers telling contrasts among the solidity of the stone in the foreground, the fertility of the trees in the middle ground, and the recession of the city in the distance. His expansive, naturalistic landscape is inhabited by carefully placed figures who do not seem to be serving a larger mythological, religious, or historical purpose. This is also true of the figures in Poussin’s Landscape with Travellers Resting, also known as A Roman Road, which Melville would have seen during the long afternoon he spent at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1849 (NN J 19-20), traditionally considered to be its companion painting, both dated to 1648 (fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Nicolas Poussin. Landscape with Travellers Resting, also known as A Roman Road, oil on canvas, 1648. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

David Carrier notes that these two Landscapes are “uncharacteristic” for Poussin because, unlike his historical paintings, they “do not use elaborately articulated architecture to open up a deep vista,” but rather “extend the immediate foreground up to the viewer” (158-59). They are as inviting to the viewer as Claude Lorrain’s Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, another painting from 1648 that Melville saw at London’s National Gallery in 1849 and later acquired as an engraving. Melville’s mezzotint after Claude’s Embarkation by Richard Earlom (CAT 124) had been engraved a decade before Pether’s mezzotint after Poussin’s Man Washing his Feet at a Fountain. In these two engravings alone, Melville had excellent evidence of an observation Pierre Rosenberg was to be making in the exhibition catalog Poussin and Nature in 2008: “In contrast to Claude Lorrain’s fascination with the sea, one of Poussin’s favorite themes is a road with travelers, who going on their nameless way, pass through a nature that remains, in a certain sense, atemporal” (Rosenberg and Christiansen, p. 192).