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L’Île Enchantée

CAT 159 crop.jpg

CAT 159. Gustave Greux after Antoine Watteau. L’Île Enchantée. Collection de M.A. Febvre. L’Art. Paris: F. Liénard, 1882. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Watteau’s L’Île Enchantée (The Enchanted Isle), in Melville’s copy of the print Gustave Greux etched for the French periodical L’Art in 1882, takes the fête galante into new realms. These are admirably articulated by the Goncourt brothers in the rhapsodic essay on Watteau (1860, revised 1880-82) which helped to rehabilitate the reputation of this eighteenth-century painter in nineteenth-century France. The Goncourts begin that essay by declaring that “The great poet of the eighteenth century is Watteau.” In his most magical paintings, “Time lies sleeping. In some fortuitous and uncharted spot, there exists, beneath the trees, an eternal indolence.” This spot is a “smiling Arcady, a tender Decameron.” The Goncourts see L’Île Enchantée (which they at first knew only in the 1734 engraving by Le Bas) as the ultimate example of that “peculiar nobility” by which Watteau is able to “paint landscapes which, by the force of poetry, acquire a supernatural air to which it would seem that the mere material craft of painting cannot aspire. It is this quality which informs LÎle Enchantée, in which, on the shores of a still, shining lake, disappearing beneath the trees pierced by the setting sun, men and women are seated on the grass gazing at the snow-covered mountains on the opposite bank . . . . This is a print which remains in the memory, not with the clarity of an image, but much more effectively, as the indecisive reminiscence of a description of some enchanted island from a romantic book” (Goncourt, 1, 6-7, 40).

Gustave Greux, in the 1882 etching that Melville acquired, was working from the original painting then on sale from the collection of Alexis Fabvre. His etching captured the enchanted indecisiveness the Goncourts had described. Melville created a similar mood nine years later in the opening lines of “After the Pleasure Party,” placing his female protagonist in a poetic landscape “Behind the house” where the “upland falls / With many an odorous tree” until “terrace by terrace, down and down,” it “meets the star-lit Mediterranean sea.” Such a  setting at such a time would seem to be a “Paradise” in which “some pangs that rend might take release.” Yet she who “keeps this bower of balm” finds not “balsamic peace” (NN PP 259). Urania’s starlit vigil, like Watteau’s indolent fête galantes in the words of the Goncourts, is “penetrated” by “an indefinable sadness” (Goncourt 8). By the end of the poem Melville will have endeavored to define the cause of hers.

Although Melville’s “After the Pleasure Party” catches the mood and animates the setting of the Watteau revival that in France was exemplified by the Goncourt essay and the Greux etching, his poem also speaks to an appreciation of Watteau that had been active in England throughout his lifetime. We have already noted Hazlitt’s rhapsodic appreciation of magical evanescence of the Fête Champêtre at the Dulwich Gallery in an essay from the early 1820s. As Selby Whittingham has shown, English appreciation of L’Île Enchantée goes all the way back to Sir Joshua Reynolds, for this was one of eight paintings by Watteau that Reynolds owned. He appears to have shown his appreciation for this particular canvas in an unusual way: he destroyed an area of the sky by removing layer after layer of paint in the effort to learn the secret of its coloring. One of the English owners after the death of Reynolds was the watercolorist James Holworthy, a close friend of the painter J. M. W. Turner. Turner made drawings directly from L’Île Enchantée, whose figures he incorporated in the painting England: Richmond Hill that he exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1819, the year of Melville’s birth (Whittingham 342-45). Turner in the 1820s and 1830s exhibited several paintings at the Royal Academy which explicitly declared his artistic debt to Watteau—a painter whose continuing reputation in England throughout the first half of the nineteenth century is aptly symbolized by S. C. Hall’s use of the Lightfoot engraving of The Fête Champêtre as the frontispiece for his Gems of Art in 1846.

During young Melville’s two visits to the private collection of Samuel Rogers in London in December 1849, he may well have seen more works by Watteau than the small circular courtship painting in the drawing room that The Art-Union had recently identified as Garden Scene—Conversation between a Lady and a Cavalier (CAT 158, fig. 1). Whenever a visitor showed a particular interest in one of his paintings on display, Rogers loved to bring out other treasures by the same artist he had in storage. The Rogers sale catalog in 1856 listed three other paintings by Watteau that were not listed in the inventories by Hazlitt, Jameson, and The Art-Union in the mid-1840s (lots 567, 596, and 676). Rogers also owned one of Watteau’s highly coveted red chalk drawings, this one being the Portrait of a Gentleman with an inscription on the back indicating that Watteau had left it to a friend at his death in July 1721 (The Very Celebrated Collection, lot 879, p. 86). That inscription was so poignant that the Goncourts had quoted it from the Rogers sale catalog (Goncourt, p. 60). Samuel Rogers also owned at least seven choice engravings after Watteau, these being listed in the sale catalog as “after Watteau, by Le Bas, &c.” This may possibly have included a copy of the celebrated 1734 Le Bas etching of L’Île Enchantée that had originally inspired the Goncourts (lot 115, p. 118).

The original painting of L’Île Enchantée, like the lost original of The Fête Champêtre, is generally dated c. 1717 (Rosenberg, “Les tableaux de Watteau,” no. 60). This painting is another fête champêtre whose elegant figures could say with Melville’s Urania that “in sylvan groups / Like the Decameron folk we lay.” The elegant inhabitants of L’Île Enchantée are grouped more cohesively near the edge of the lake rather than spread out in separate groups as in The Fête Champêtre, but they are drawn from the ensemble of figures who populate other paintings by Watteau. The 1882 etching by Greux, like the 1846 engraving by Lightfoot, features one elegant young woman standing in the foreground who is being courted apart from the larger group, depicted from behind in such a way that the supple nape of her neck is echoed by that of her counterpart in the group seated before the lake. This is a striking example of how Watteau imported similar figures (and sometimes the same one) from his expressive array of chalk drawings into more than one painting. In their mode of dress and manner of courtship, the conversing pairs apart from the larger group featured in the foreground of these two paintings also resemble the lady and courtier who are the more exclusive focus of the circular Conversation scene from the Rogers Collection now at the New York Met (CAT 158, fig. 1). Watteau’s elegant pleasure seekers are so removed from the constraints of everyday life that we do not know if they are uniquely imagined separate selves or the same self in different stages of development or display.

One difference between the 1882 French etching by Greux and the 1846 English engraving by Lightfoot is its stronger sense of poignancy, an indefinable melancholy. Some of that difference was certainly inherent in the two canvases being engraved. That intrinsic difference is magnified by the skill with which the etching technique employed by Greux is able to capture those deeper, indefinable enchantments of the kind that the Goncourts had celebrated in the 1734 etching of the same image by Le Bas. The concentrated focus on one sylvan scene in L’Île Enchantée, with one single prominent couple standing apart from one large group, intensifies the felt emotion of this print. In this sense, the effect of the 1882 etching of Watteau’s L’Île Enchantée by Gustave Gruex can be compared to that of the 1782 engraving of Claude’s Enchanted Castle by Vivares and Woollett.

Melville’s “After the Pleasure Party” creates a poetic setting informed by French and English engravings he owned of The Enchanted Isle and The Enchanted Castle, as well as by the the poetic appreciations of Claude and Watteau that Keats and Hazlitt had published within years of his own birth, to explore the divided psyche of a lone women to whose inner life he gave poetic form at the beginning of a decade in which Sigmund Freud was making somewhat more systematic psychic explorations of his own in Vienna.