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CAT 160 Rajon after Watteau finette MSA(1).jpg

CAT 160. Rajon after Watteau. Finette. Collection La Caze. Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Paris: A. A. Salmon, July 1870, p. 12. Melville Society Archive, New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The young woman in Watteau’s Finette is not a passive subject to the viewer’s gaze. She turns to the viewer as she sits alone, making music to her own frank rhythms. She is a rare female soloist in the galant setting, without a soul in sight to play to. Rather than being accompanied by grazing deer, as had been Claude’s Psyche seated before the Enchanted Castle, Watteau’s Finette is accompanying herself with a long-stemmed lute (also known as an archlute or theorbo). Its gourd-like shell blocks the sight of whatever distant horizon extends beyond the cleavage in the foliage into which her poised, erect head ascends. The intersecting triangles that meet in her upper body, one of descending space, the other of silken grace, lock the vertical movement together just where the fretted lute stem, supported by the flesh of the hand and the stretch of the silken sash, lift a diagonal line through the foliage to the left.

No sea can be seen beyond the swell of the lute. The greenish hue that pervades the painting itself is necessarily absent from the etching by Rajon in Melville’s collection, but its  etched texture does convey the intermingling of surface elements that caused the Goncourts to sense this female figure in a landscape setting as an evocation of the sea. Watteau’s original painting entered the Louvre in 1869, a year before Rajon’s etching appeared. To the Goncourts, “the sky, the dress, the figure of the woman” in the painting “convey the fused impression of a fragment of curiously veined marble. Yet there is nothing here but a greenish tone enlivened in the background by the glow of a storm, a greenish tone that leaves traces of its marine tinge even in the hair of the guitarist and discloses, as it were, her pink face amid a transparency, a plashing of sea green studded with sparkling eddies” (Goncourt 51-52). The indeterminacy of the setting and the unexpectedness of the coloring allow the imagination to roam. Is this self-absorbed figure content with her own selfhood, or is she waiting, perhaps, for someone to hear her play, to share her moment, to dance to her music?

In the 1870 issue of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in which Rajon’s etching of Finette appeared, Rajon’s Finette had a partner only two pages away. Her etching on page 12 was preceded by Rajon’s etching of Watteau’s L’Indifférent on page 10 (fig. 1):

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Figure 1. Paul Rajon, etching of Watteau’s L’Indifferent, a companion to his etching of Watteau’s Finette in the July 1870 issue of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, p. 10.

The etchings by Rajon in the 1870 issue of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts were not the first time Watteau’s Finette and L’Indifférent had been seen in relation to each other. Like L’Île Enchantée, the original paintings are dated c. 1717. They have been treated as a pair ever since 1735, when they appeared side by side in L’oeuvre de Watteau, the painting component of the four-volumme Recueil Jullienne. Benoît II Audran etched the images of La Finette for both the drawing and painting components of this monumental project supervised by Jean de Jullienne (Rosenberg and Pratt, no. 481, figs. 481a and 481b). Gérard Jean-Baptiste Scotin etched the image of L’Indifférent that appeared in with La Finette in 1735. Not only were these two isolated figures treated as pendants and presented next to each other. As Isabelle Tillerot has shown, they were actually printed from the same plate (Tillerot, fig. 6, p. 42). In that intimate but yearning diptych of two single and self-contained figures from 1735, the long stem of the female musician’s lute and the extended arm of the male dancer’s pose extend toward each other but will never touch. The heads of each figure are turned away from each other into the world of the viewer (see fig. 2 below).

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Figure 2. Diptych from a single engraved plate, creating a fixed impression of Audran’s etching of Watteau’s La Finette to the left of Scotin’s etching of Watteau’s L’Indifférent in L’oeuvre de Watteau (Paris: 1735).

Pendants, in art criticism, can never be entirely independent, even if they are self-contained, because they need each other to be whole. That is true of Rajon’s etchings of Finette and L’Indifférent even though they are separated by page 11 in the July 1870 issue of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. It is even more true of Audran’s and Scotin’s etchings of La Finette and L’Indifférent in L’oeuvre de Watteau, forever fixed apart from each other by the immovable engraver’s plate whose inky additives animate them in highly compatible action while yet enforcing a spatial separation that will never end.

Each pair of etched French engravings after Watteau, created one hundred and thirty-five years apart from each other in time, provides a perfect pictorial counterpart to the piercing question the astronomer Urania poses to Nature itself at the heart of her star-lit vigil in Melville’s 1891 poem “After the Pleasure Party”:

Why hast thou made us but in halves—
Co-relatives? This makes us slaves.
If these co-relatives never meet
Selfhood itself seems incomplete.
And such the dicings of blind fate
Few matching halves here meet and mate.
What Cosmic jest or Anarch blunder
The human integral clove asunder
And shied the fractions though life’s gate? (NN PP 262)

Before Melville posed this question in the decade of Sigmund Freud, Claude had explored it in the figure of Psyche seated before the Enchanted Castle in Melville’s copy of the 1782 engraving by Vivares and Woollett, as had Watteau in the seated figure of Finette in Melville’s copy of the 1870 etching by Rajon.

Watteau’s own most striking way of posing this question was through the matching halves of La Finette and L’Indifférent. They are treated as a pair in the 1870 essay, even though a page separates them (Mantz, pp. 10-12). In the language of Melville’s “After the Pleasure Party,” these two etchings are “matching halves” that “meet and mate” in the context of the essay, though they do not visually face each other on the page. They are the pictorial equivalent of those “few matching halves” in Melville’s poem that do “meet and mate,” yet at the same time represent “the human integer clove asunder.”

Like many of Watteau’s most suggestive figures, the solo personae in La Finette and L’Indifférent have inspired a wide range of interpretation, both singly and together. But many would agree with Pierre Rosenberg that they match most richly by embodying, respectively, the sister arts of music and dance (Rosenberg. “The tableaux des Watteau,” 390). When Melville muses upon “what unlike things must meet and mate” to produce “Art” in his 1891 poem of that name, he is drawing upon artists as unlike as Claude and Watteau who have created figures as unlike as Psyche and Finette among the ingredients that have “fused” in Melville’s “mystic heart” in search of his own poetic forms with which to restore that “human integral clove asunder” (NN PP 280).

One more set of Watteau’s matching halves remains to be considered. The 1856 Samuel Rogers sale catalog listed a “companion” to the small circular painting of a Conversation between a Lady and Gentleman that Melville would have seen in the poet’s drawing room in 1849 (CAT 158, fig. 1, now known as The Cascade at the New York Met). The companion painting in the sale catalog was listed simply as A Concert. It, too, had been acquired by Rogers from the Earl of Carysfort’s Collection (The Very Celebrated Collection, lot 566, p. 49). And this painting, too, had arrived at the New York Metropolitan Museum in 1959, where it is now known as The Country Dance (fig. 3).

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Figure 3. Copy after Watteau. A Concert, from the Samuel Rogers collection, now at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art as The Country Dance.

Again, the provenance from the New York Met omits Rogers’s name from the succession of owners who followed the Earl of Carysfort ("The Concert"). That omission is also repaired at the Watteau Abecedario site for its companion piece, now known as The Cascade, at the New York Met. That site reports a very curious turn of affairs. “In the 1856 sale of Samuel Rogers's Collection the two paintings were sold as separate lots to different buyers but somehow were rejoined quickly thereafter (“The Cascade, Copy 2”). They remain together in New York today, as they had been the Rogers Collection from 1828 to 1856, even though the Conversation piece in the drawing room is the only one that was listed in the Hazlitt, Jameson, and Art-Union inventories of the collection the 1840s. The story of these “companion” paintings is one in which the “matching halves,” for the most part, have managed to stay together in the same collections, though they have not always, if ever, been displayed together.

If young Melville had shown any interest in the small circular Conversation between a Lady and Gentleman during his two visits in 1849, it is certainly possible that Rogers might have pulled out its small circular companion then known as The Concert from wherever he had it in storage. In these companion paintings, the “dicings of blind fate” are more nuanced and ambivalent than in the seemingly self-contained worlds of La Finette and L’Indifférent. The male figure in the Conversation piece is making little progress with young lady whose blank expression and averted posture read as somewhere between indifference and disdain. Is the solitary woman at the center of The Concert willingly or unwillingly being pulled into the dance by one of the musicians? The seated young woman to her left is forcibly pushing against the attentions of the man who is courting her. And who is that woman whose face above the musicians on the right is looking down at the central figure? Is she an older woman looking on approvingly as the younger woman is being initiated into a new kind of courtship? Or might she be the central figure looking back on her younger self from a later stage in life?

Maybe Melville’s earliest impetus toward his later life as a collector of Watteau and author of “After the Pleasure Party” came from seeing these two small circular paintings in the company of Samuel Rogers. The young novelist wrote and published Moby-Dick immediately after returning to New York from London in 1850. He then plunged directly into Pierre, his deeply ambivalent, unresolvable courtship story.