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Design of this Site

This introduction to Melville as collector is followed by the interpretive Catalog of the prints he collected, itself introduced by the Guide to Use of Catalog. The structuring principle of the Catalog itself is relatively straightforward: I have arranged Melville’s prints “according to schools, masters, and years” (to borrow Goethe’s phrasing). After an opening “chapter” on prints depicting subjects from Ancient Greece and the Near East (including Biblical sites and subjects), subsequent chapters present Melville’s prints from the Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, German, British, and American schools, respectively. Within each school I have grouped each subject chronologically by artist. Those in Chapter 2, for example, run from “Ancient Rome to Modern Italy.” Chapter 3 encompasses “Three Centuries of French Painting.” I have structured Melville’s collection in this way not in homage to Goethe but because Melville himself, as a late-nineteenth-century American, is likely to have thought of his own collection “according to schools, masters, and years.” Within this general framework, however, I have endeavored to make my Catalog an expression of our age as well as his own.  Digital technology allows whoever visits this site to explore Melville’s collection far beyond the order imposed by successive national schools through electronic tags and hyperlinks that link every print with a variety of others through multiple metadata categories.

The only evidence from Melville himself about how he arranged parts of his collection was seen within the three portfolios of prints that Eleanor Metcalf donated to the Berkshire Athenaeum in 1952. When I arrived to examine the prints in 1985, her handwritten notes indicated that the portfolios themselves, in addition to their contents, had belonged to Melville. The distribution of the 285 unframed prints among them to some degree would have reflected his own practice. The “Portfolio of Old German and English Prints” was quite straightforward in its contents: it included two complete sets of German prints by Moritz Retzsch (Schiller’s Fridolin and his Pegasus in the Yoke) and two complete sets of English prints by George Cruikshank (The Bottle and The Drunkard’s Children).   

The “Miscellaneous Small Prints in an Old Portfolio” also had one natural subdivision: 23 prints from a French edition of Flaxman’s illustrations of Dante and Aeschylus. I was interested to see that several other subdivisions appeared to have been created by Melville himself.  Four separate groups of prints were within folded sheets of paper on the outside of which Melville had labeled their contents. He had written “Busts / Antique” in green crayon on a sheet enclosing 21 prints. “Rubens” was written in red crayon on a sheet enclosing 13 prints, “N. Poussin” in blue crayon on a sheet enclosing 10 prints, and “Stanfield, 1 Vander Velde” on a sheet enclosing 8 prints. This portfolio also contained a small envelope in which Melville preserved 44 images cut from unidentified biblical commentaries.[1] 

There were no subdivisions at all within the “Large Portfolio of Prints,” so I created categories of my own for the 1986 essay. My titles for these sub-divisions suggest the range and diversity of Melville’s collection as a whole: Bosse’s Four Seasons; Boydell’s Shakespeare; Four Mounted Engravings; Marine Views; Landscapes in the Holy Land; Miscellaneous Landscapes; J. M. W. Turner; Portrayals of Writers, Artists, and Engravers; Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Pieces; Various Ancient, Mythical, Historical, and Religious Items; Late Nineteenth-Century France; Miscellaneous Nineteenth-Century Engravings.

The above system of organization, partly by national school, partly by artist, partly by theme, was appropriate for my inventory of the 285 prints within the three portfolios at the Berkshire Athenaeum. But this integrated online site, incorporating the additional 135 prints that have been discovered elsewhere, needed something more comprehensive. One option would have been to treat the entire collection thematically (as I had the mass of prints in the Large Portfolio at the Berkshire Athenaeum). Another would have been to present Melville’s collection according to those collections in which the prints currently reside (as I had in the sequence of essays I had published). But I decided it would be far preferable to arrange his collection “according to schools, masters, and years” (as Goethe had done). Even after making that general decision, other interesting judgments remained. When the English artist John Flaxman illustrates The Persians by Aeschylus, should these prints appear by subject under “Ancient Greece” or by artist under “British artists”? When faced with questions of this kind I have made my own best decision as to the category that is likely to have been primary in Melville’s mind. Even after deciding which prints go into which chapter, judgments had to be made about the best way to order them within that chapter, both physically and mentally.

When Susan Pearce writes that the “meaning” of the “objects” in a collection is “produced by arranging them in sets, both mentally and physically” (“On Collecting,” 14), she speaks to the greatest pleasure I have had in creating my Catalog of Melville’s collection. Sorting the prints into the successive chapters, and then into the various sub-sets within each chapter, has itself been quite satisfying to a hunter / scholar with the kind of “rage for order” that Sealts describes in Pursuing Melville. But much more satisfying than even this has been to write the headnotes for each subset within each chapter and, after that, the interpretive commentary for each successive print. Sifting through all of the prints, and all of the ways in which they speak for themselves and to each other, I have found that Melville’s collection is nothing less than an illustrated history of Western (and Near-Eastern) Civilization from ancient to modern times. My commentary in the successive headnotes and catalog entries has turned out to be an intellectual history of Melville’s lifelong engagement with the vicissitudes of civilized life as a reader, writer, traveler, art collector, and occupant of his own home. This digital site enables each viewer to closely examine each pictorial component of that intellectual history.

As Pearce said of museums themselves, Melville’s collection inhabits “that obscure zone between cultural ideals of value and the deepest levels of individual personality.” Each element within that “obscure zone” has been increasingly interesting to me as I have attempted to imagine and articulate what Melville’s own idiosyncratic slice of the visual history of the world may have meant to him (and can mean to us). Writing the successive headnotes and catalog entries has certainly brought home to me Goethe’s declaration that “in each context each print becomes instructive.” Each catalog entry in itself combines physical and mental meaning. 

My first object with each print has been to identify, if known, its engraver, artist, title, publisher, and date of publication. Such information is essential for a proper catalogue raisonné; it has often been difficult to find for the 67 prints whose pictorial image is unaccompanied verbal information of any kind. Forty of the prints at the Berkshire Athenaeum have required more than twenty years to identify the artist, engraver, subject, date, place, or publisher. When one finally does make such an identification, however, the pleasure is intense. Because in most cases I have no way of knowing whether Melville himself had access to the additional information I have discovered about a given print, I have followed the procedure of recording any information that appears on the print itself exactly as it appears there [adding anything  additional that I have discovered in brackets]. I want the reader to be able to distinguish between the information Melville would have had available from the object itself and that to which he might possibly have had access from other sources.

As explained in the Guide to Use of Catalog, each print is introduced to the reader on the Exhibition level. Here the image itself is accompanied by caption conveying basic information about the print and a general discussion of the work itself in relation to art history and Melville’s life and writing. By double-clicking on the image of the print, the viewer reaches the Catalog level for the same print. On this level the image is accompanied by the official Print Identification for this image in two parts. The first part presents any information about the engraver, artist, title, publisher, place, or date exactly as it appears on the face of the print itself. Any additional information that I have provided appears in brackets. The second part of the Print Identification presents the measurement of the print by height x width in inches, its engraving technique, and the collection in which the print is currently preserved, plus any annotation on the front or back of the print, any exhibition in which Melville’s copy has appeared, any published commentary about his copy of the print, and any other pertinent information.

The official Print Identification for each image gives it an identity of its own as a material and perceived object apart from my discussion on the Exhibition level as to what it might have meant to Melville himself as an author, reader, traveler, or collector. A detailed view of a sample entry is provided in the Guide to Use of Catalog. On the right side of the Catalog level for each print the viewer will find an array of digital tags which connect this print with others from Melville’s collection according to a variety of metadata categories.  The viewer who clicks on the image of the print on the Catalog level will be able to examine the print itself in great detail through a roving zoom function. You will be able to see more detail in some prints than even Melville himself would have been able to see with a magnifying glass.

Whenever possible, my own prose discussion of each print on the Exhibition level begins with a brief reference to any commentary that appeared with the print when it was originally published—both to locate the print in the context of its original creation as a cultural object and to present information to which Melville may have had access as a collector. I then briefly explore any direct connections that this particular artist, subject, or engraving may have with Melville’s writings, reading, travel, or visits to galleries. As space allows, I also discuss broader meanings that this print may have had in Melville’s day—or does have in our own. To show the intimate connection between Melville’s print collection and the books in his library, I supplement the succession of prints in each chapter with pictorial book boxes (MBB) that reproduce images of similar subjects or artists from books that he owned.

[1] When the Berkshire Athenaeum first digitalized its collections of Melville’s prints in 2002-03, making a photocopy of each image easily accessible to library users, those folded handwritten sheets within which Melville had grouped some of his prints appear to have been lost.