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Parting Thought on Watteau and Boucher

The alluring quartet of prints after eighteenth-century images by Watteau and Boucher that Melville had assembled by the time of his death in 1891 highlights the essential role reproductive prints could play in establishing, maintaining, or rehabilitating an artist’s reputation. The reproduction of Watteau’s drawings and paintings in the four-volume Recueil Jullienne within two decades of his death established his reputation among many artists and collectors who had little or no access to his original drawings or paintings. The years that young Boucher spent etching more than a hundred Watteau drawings for the Recueil Jullienne developed a fluidity in his own draftsmanship that lasted the rest of his life while also inspiring him to create his own drawings as free-standing compositions, not simply as sketches to be imported into paintings. After the popularity of Watteau and Boucher during the Rococo age in France plummeted dramatically from the onset of the Revolutionary era through the early decades of the nineteenth century, the revival of both Watteau and Boucher was activated by prints that had been made after the works of each in the eighteenth century as well as by nineteenth-century prints such as those by Rajon and Péquégnot that Melville collected.

Reproductive prints were to essential students of art in the nineteenth-century because many of the paintings by Watteau engraved for the Recueil Jullienne, such as Le Bosquet de Bacchus, were untraced at that time and have remained known only through those early etched images. Other paintings such as L’Île Enchantée had remained in private collections and were widely known only through etchings such as the one by Gustav Greux that Melville acquired sometime after its publication in 1882. La Finette and L’Indifférent could be seen by individuals who visited the Louvre after 1869, but until then they could have been known only by etchings such as Audran and Scotin published in 1735, reaching a wider audience in those published by Rajon in 1870. Scores of drawings by Watteau were known only by the etchings Boucher and others had published in the Recueil Jullienne, and Boucher’s own free-standing drawings were so numerous that it was only by engravings made during his own lifetime, or by engravers such as Péquégnot a century later, that they were able to be seen by collectors such as Melville.

Melville seems to have kept no record of when, where, or how he acquired the four hundred plus engravings that survive from his collection today. Did he acquire Lightfoot’s 1846 steel engraving of Watteau’s Fȇtȇ Champȇtre when he was in London in 1849 or after the bulk of his collecting activity appears to have taken place, in New York in the 1870s and 1880s? How and when did he acquire Rajon’s 1870 etching after Watteau’s Finette, or Greux’s 1882 etching after L’Île Enchantée, or Péquégnot’s sanguine engraving after Boucher’s Venus and Amours, first published in black and white in 1867? None of these four original works by Watteau or Boucher were in public collections where Melville could have seen them. Like the Goncourts when writing about L’Île Enchantée in 1862, he would have known them only through reproductive prints.

Beyond the Fȇtȇ Champȇtre at the Dulwich Gallery there were few if any paintings by Watteau or Boucher at any of the public picture galleries young Melville visited in London in 1849, and the same was true of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1870s and 1880s. Even so, by the time Melville published “After the Pleasure Party” in 1891, he had managed to acquire four prints after Watteau and Boucher that whose depictions of pleasure parties, courtship rituals, unmatched halves, and the “flush of sensuous strife” spoke directly to Urania’s piercing star-lit vigil.

The story of Melville’s potential engagement with those four reproductive prints did not end with the publication of “After the Pleasure Party” or with his death four months later. For nearly a century, his ownership of these prints after Watteau and Boucher was essentially unknown. Watteau’s L’Ile Enchantee was the first to emerge, in the 1986 inventory of several hundred prints that Melville’s granddaughter Eleanor Melville Metcalf had donated to the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1952. In 1993, Watteau’s Finette surfaced among the forty-four prints that the New Haven book collector William Reese acquired from the estate sale of Samuel Sukel in Pittsfield. In the year 2000, Boucher’s Venus et Amours emerged among thirty-seven prints from Melville’s collection being preserved by Melville’s great grandson Bart Chapin in Bath, Maine, this followed shortly by Watteau’s The Fête Champêtre in the collection of Melville Chapin, Bart’s older brother, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The above prints were reproduced and discussed individually in essays devoted to those separate collections (see the “Key to Primary Sources on Prints” in our “Guide to Use of Catalog"), but this online site has provided the first opportunity to see and discuss them in relation to each other.

Parting Thought on Watteau and Boucher