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Poussin’s Landscapes with Travelers in London in the 1840s

We have already seen Hazlitt’s tribute to The Shepherds of Arcadia in the essay on “A Landscape by Nicolas Poussin” in the 1845 American edition of Table-Talk that Herman inherited from Gansvoort (declaring that the inscription on the tomb that the shepherds encounter on a fine springtime morning “in the vale of Tempe” will “forever speak . . . of ages past and ages to come”). Hazlitt made a similar tribute to Poussin’s Landscape with Travellers Resting in the essay on “The Dulwich Gallery” in the copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art that Melville acquired in 1870 (Sealts no. 263a). Hazlitt comments with his characteristic gusto on five separate paintings by Poussin he saw in the Fourth Room of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The first is a copy of The Education of Bacchus from “the fine original at the National Gallery” (a different version of the same subject than the one Melville acquired in Storer’s engraving from Poussin’s painting at the Louvre, CAT 137). The copy of The Education of Bacchus at Dulwich makes Hazlitt “thirsty to look at. . . . The infant Bacchus seems as if he would drink up a vintage—he drinks with his mouth, his hands, his belly, and his whole body.” Hazlitt is equally taken, in a different way, by Poussin’s The Flight into Egypt. This painting “instantly takes the tone of scripture history. This is strange, but so it is. All things are possible to a high imagination” (33-34).     

The mythological subject of The Education of Bacchus and the scriptural subject of The Flight into Egypt were familiar topics for students of Poussin when Hazlitt was writing in the early 1820s, but images of generic travelers along unidentified roads had not yet become a recognizable category among his oeuvre. Hazlitt had no name for the painting at the Dulwich Gallery that is now widely known as Landscape with Travellers Resting or A Roman Road. But he offers this painting as “proof” of his idea that “all things about which we have a feeling, may be expressed by true genius.” He introduces it as “a dark landscape . . . in a corner of the room. . . . There are trees in the fore-ground, with a paved road and buildings in the distance. . . . The large leaves are wet with dew, and the eye dwells ‘under the shade of Melancholy boughs.’” Hazlitt feels that “the Genius of antiquity might wander here, and feel itself at home” (34). In the catalogue of the Dulwich collection in Melville’s copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms of Art, this painting is one of eleven paintings by Poussin in the Fourth Room. While all the mythological and biblical subjects have specific titles, this one is listed as simply “Landscape” (no. 279, Appendix 3).

In 2008 the curators of the Poussin and Nature exhibition in New York could make a category of Poussin’s “Travelers through Landscapes” because they could supplement the two paintings Melville had seen at the National Gallery and the Dulwich Gallery in 1849 with four additional paintings. Doing so, however, had only been possible since the late twentieth century, after those four paintings had finally been acquired by public museums after spending nearly all of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century in private collections in England. Only now in the twenty-first century, Rosenberg and Christiansen suggest, with the added evidence provided by these newly discovered canvases, can we begin to come to a full understanding of Poussin’s supreme achievement as a painter of “the road and travelers” in those two landscapes that have been in continuous view at the National Gallery and the Dulwich Gallery since early in the nineteenth century. For now, what they can say is that both of “these majestic, inhabited landscapes unfold in numerous planes, each of them holding our gaze, from the travelers in the foreground, at the very edge of the canvas, to the distant view, with a wealth of detail, none of it gratuitous” (p. 217).

By the time Melville arrived in London in 1849, the two landscapes of generic travelers he saw at the National and Dulwich galleries had already received considerable critical attention.  Hazlitt was not the only prominent commentator who had recognized the “genius of antiquity” in these paintings. One surprising burst of praise had come from John Ruskin in the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843. Ruskin in that volume consistently ridiculed Claude Lorrain and other seventeenth century painters of Italianate landscapes in order to elevate those of Turner, but he called the Landscape with a Man Washing his Feet at a Fountain “one of the finest landscapes that ancient art has produced—the work of a really great and intellectual mind, the quiet Nicholas Poussin, in our own National Gallery, with the traveler washing his feet.” Of course Ruskin had then severely chastised Poussin for his inconsistent and untrue depiction of light in both the National Gallery and Dulwich landscapes. Melville had potential access to the First American Edition of Modern Painters as early 1847 in the New York library of his friend Evert Duyckinck (Wallace, Melville and Turner, pp. 73-74, 126-27) but he would have had personal access to Ruskin’s praise for this painting by Poussin in the five-volume American edition of Modern Painters he acquired in 1865 (Sealts no. 431; 1:142). 

Turner had himself been influenced by the Dulwich painting as a young man. Poussin’s painting was then in the collection of Noel Desenfans, whose private collection was to become the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1811. Turner had seen the painting in 1802, shortly before the Peace of Amiens had made it possible for him, like William Hazlitt and young Allan Melvill, to travel to France and see the paintings in the Louvre for the first time (Turner was born in 1775, three years before Hazlitt). In addition to visiting Paris, Turner traveled to the region of Bonneville in the Alps and made sketches that informed oil painting Chateaux de St. Michael he exhibited at London’s Royal Academy the next year (Butlin and Joll no. 50, pl. 59; fig. 3 below).

CAT 143 fig 3 Turner Chateau de St. Michael Bonneville Savoy Yale Center for British Art.jpg

Figure 3. J. M. W. Turner. Chateau de St. Michael, Bonneville, oil on canvas, 1802-03. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

The influence of the actual Alpine landscape is self-evident in Turner’s depiction of the mountains themselves. The influence of Poussin’s Dulwich painting is evident in the path of road running straight from the foreground out toward the mountains and in the depiction of the woman walking beside it. The structural influence of Dulwich painting is evident in the lecture Turner delivered at London’s Royal Academy in 1811 in which he praised that painting as “a powerful specimen of Historic landscape, in which the rules of parallel perspective produce propriety even in Landscape . . . where a road terminates in the middle of the picture and every line of it tends to that centre” (Butlin and Joll, 1:39-40).

By the time Melville alluded to the Vale of Tempe in the “On the Slain Collegians” in 1866, followed by a more extended allusion to that same Arcadian vale in the episode involving the Thessalonian banker a decade later in Clarel (the epic poem that is Melville’s own most extended meditation on the theme of Landscapes with Travelers), Melville already had in his personal library on East 26th Street in New York Hazlitt’s commentary on The Shepherds of Arcadia at the Louvre in the 1845 edition of Table-Talk, Hazlitt’s commentary on the Landscape with Travelers Resting at the Dulwich Gallery in the 1844 edition of Criticisms on Art, and Ruskin’s commentary on the Landscape with a Man Washing his Feet at a Fountain at the National Gallery in the 1865 edition of Modern Painters (Sealts no. 266a, 263a, and 431). We do not know exactly when, how, or from whom he acquired the engravings after the paintings at the Louvre and National Gallery by Walker and Pether that survive today in the frames of golden oak in which they are still being preserved. Nor do we know the fate of the large-scale landscape by Poussin that Melville would have seen during both of his visits to the private collection of Samuel Rogers in London in 1849 soon after seeing Poussin’s “Landscapes with Travelers” at the Dulwich and National galleries.

Poussin’s painting of The Adoration of the Shepherd, which eventually entered London’s National Gallery in 1957 after being sold at the Samuel Rogers estate sale in 1856, was one of two original paintings by Poussin in the private collection of Samuel Rogers during Melville’s visits there on December 19 and 22, 1849. The other one was described in the catalog for the 1856 estate sale as The Campagna of Rome: a grand composition of broken rocky scenery: a convent in a ravine at the foot of the mountainous background; a peasant and family resting on a bank between a fine group of trees; a stream of water on the left (Catalogue of the Very Celebrated Collection, no. 711). This same painting had been listed as Landscape; Campagna di Rome, with Figures in the catalog of Rogers’s collection the 1844 edition of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art (no. 9 in Appendix IX). In the same year Anna Jameson, in her essay on “The Collection of Mr. Rogers,” had listed it as A grand classical Landscape, with Travellers reposing, called the ‘Campagna of Rome'” (No. 27). Jameson listed its size as 3 x 4 feet and compared its depiction of morning light to a passage from Mark Akenside’s The Pleasures of Imagination (p. 398). Gustav Waagen in 1854 emphasized that this was a “rather large” landscape of “very poetic composition and careful execution . . . in the dusky silver tone.” He contrasted its “sensation of the freshness of morning” with the “delicious evening stillness” of Claude’s Piping Shepherd and called attention to the “reviving freshness in the dark water and under the trees in the foreground" (1:78).

All of the above indicates suggests that this Grand classical Landscape, with Travellers reposing that Melville saw during his two visits with Samuel Rogers in December 1849 is a missing link in the sequence of “Landscapes with Travelers” celebrated by Rosenberg and Christiansen in the 2008 New York exhibition catalog. None of the above descriptions by Hazlitt, Jameson, Waagen or the catalog for the 1856 estate sale suggests that the painting in Rogers’s collection addressed any of the mythological or religious subjects for which Poussin was then best known. Nor do any of those four descriptions match up visually with any of the six of “Landscapes with Travelers” in the 2008 New York exhibition. This suggests either that the Grand classical Landscape, with Travelers reposing no longer exists or that it still resides in some private collection from which it has not yet emerged, as had been the case with those four “Landscapes with Travelers” in the 2008 New York exhibition that had emerged from private collections in England between 1947 and 1975.

If the painting Melville saw twice in the Rogers collection in 1849 was indeed a missing link in the sequence of “Landscapes with Travelers” in the exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum a century and a half later, we can only hope that it will one day surface and be recognized as such. It would be good to see what Melville saw and to imagine what he might have learned from Rogers himself about it. Jameson indicated that Rogers had acquired the painting in 1820 from the collection of A. Champernowne, whose previous ownership is confirmed in the catalog for the 1856 estate sale (Jameson no. 27, p. 398). This information might be helpful in identifying the painting in some private collection whose provenance is incomplete.

Similarly, we can only hope that the mezzotint of The Healing of the Blind that Elias Dexter framed for Herman Melville in 1869 still exists and will someday come to light. Jay Leyda had attributed the work to Rembrandt in 1969 without identifying an actual mezzotint and Lynn Horth in 1993 had assumed it was a print after Poussin’s famous painting at the Louvre, but again without suggesting any actual mezzotint from that painting. We on this site have proposed Richard Earlom’s mezzotint Our Savior Healing the Blind after the painting by Annibale Carracci as the most likely candidate (see CAT 111), but we will never know for sure unless the actual print surfaces in Melville’s frame or we get other reliable information about the artist and engraver of print he took to Dexter.