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Goethe Yes and No

Like Melville, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a collector of prints and engravings. This revered German author would have preferred to collect paintings, but he could not afford to indulge his passion to that degree, so he relished the “self-denial” of purchasing a large number of prints with a relatively small amount of money. By the time of his death in 1832, Goethe had assembled more than “eleven thousand five hundred works on paper” (Gleisberg 9-11). His cultural status at the time of his death was such that he arranged to give his art collection to the city of Weimar on the condition that a museum be created to house and preserve it. He had also arranged for Johann Christian Schuchardt to make a complete catalog of his art collection (Goethe’s Kunstsammlungen, Jena, 1848). As a result, for more than a century and a half, scholars have known exactly which prints he had collected. From the time the Goethe National Museum opened in Weimar in 1886, students and researchers interested in either Goethe’s writings or his collecting activities have been free to examine and interpret the prints from his collection.

Goethe left his massive collection of prints and other artworks to posterity because he knew how essential they were to understanding his literary art. What Melville left implicit Goethe made explicit. In 1799 Goethe published The Collector and his Circle, an epistolary novel based on his own collecting habits. Goethe wrote in this youthful work of the great pleasure of arranging “my prints according to schools, masters, and years.” Shortly before his death, Goethe declared that “I did not collect according to whim or arbitrarily but each time according to a plan and intentionally for my own consequential education and I learned something from each piece in my possession.” He had first expressed the latter idea when Napoleon’s conquering army was nearly on his doorstep in 1813. “During this confused time,” he wrote to a friend, “I knew no better way of being diverted than putting my art works, especially my prints in order. I am beginning to place them according to schools and to join the various collections; in context each print becomes instructive, and you have more than you believed” (Gleisberg 11, 44).

Goethe’s declaration that “in context each print becomes instructive” certainly holds for Melville’s collection. Even though we have no direct commentary from Melville himself about his collecting activity, I have learned simply from making my own catalog of its contents the kind of pleasure and knowledge that comes from first, handling each print individually, and then, seeing each in relation to the others. Goethe writes specifically about each print being “instructive” in the “context” of others by the same artist or school. Each print can also be instructive in the way it addresses broad themes of art history more generally. When the collector is also a masterful literary artist, each print is also potentially instructive in the context of that writer’s own reading, writing, traveling, and gallery visits—and in the interrelations among them all. All the metadata, tabs, and hyperlinks on this site allow the viewer to “join the various collections” within Melville’s collection while also relating them the imaginative life of the collector and the collective life of European and world culture.

When Goethe arrived in Rome on November 1, 1786, he declared in his journal that “a new life begins when a man once sees with his own eyes all that before he has but partially heard or read of.” Here in Rome, “the subjects of the first engravings I ever remember seeing . . . stand boldly before my sight.” Other images he “had long been acquainted with through paintings or drawings, engravings, or wood-cuts, plaster-casts, and cork models are here collectively presented to my eye.” Melville first arrived in Rome seventy-one years after Goethe, on February 25, 1857.  He marked the above declaration about a “new life” in the copy he acquired of Goethe’s Travels in Italy (Sealts no. 228). He also marked Goethe’s further declaration that “I reckon a new birth-day,—a true new birth from the day that I entered Rome” (MMO 228). Goethe in this passage applied the cultural ideas of a “renaissance,” a new-birth, directly to himself.  Melville was similarly reborn in Rome, especially as a student of art and engravings. 

These two men, though born generations apart, were the same age when they arrived in Rome. Melville calculated on the top of the page on which Goethe described his own arrival in Rome that “Goethe’s age on the occasion of this visit” was “37” (the same age at which Melville arrived in Rome). Melville, like Goethe, felt himself a citizen of all of Europe when contemplating the visual arts. He was as close to Goethe when making this intimate 1857 calculation of the age at which each had entered in Rome as he had been when comparing Goethe’s “massive chest” to a “Roman triumphal arch” in Moby-Dick in 1851 (NN MD 376).  Goethe’s text and Melville’s markings were recorded by Walker Cowen in Melville’s Marginalia in 1965 (Cowen 5: 199-206). But you can see all the actual annotations, pencil checks, and even folded corners that Melville made in his copy of Travels in Italy in Melville’s Marginalia Online (MMO 228, pp. 349-403). This link takes you directly to the page on which he calculated Goethe’s age as 37 and drew a marginal line along the rest of the opening paragraph:

Susan Pearce has observed that personal collections of art stand “in that obscure zone between cultural ideas of value and the deepest levels of individual personality” (Pearce, Museums, Objects, and Collections, ch. 2). Just as Melville felt a strong personal connection with Goethe when he arrived in Rome and saw its celebrated treasures for the first time, so did many of the prints he collected dovetail with those that Goethe collected in the “cultural ideas of value” they represented.  Melville collected prints after the same classicizing Italianate artists in the French, Flemish, Dutch, and English traditions that Goethe did: Claude, Poussin, Rubens, Swanevelt, Both, Wilson, and Flaxman. Because he was born a half-century after Goethe, Melville was also able to follow that classicizing strain as it played itself out in German, English, and French artists during the years and decades after Goethe’s death. During those decades, Melville also followed many of the modern painters of his own age through Romantic period into the Victorian era and even to early Impressionism (Manet).

At the other end of Pearce’s dichotomy, “the deepest levels of individual personality,” Melville’s choices as a collector departed from those of Goethe in telling ways. As one might expect, Melville’s collection is strong in maritime images; he assembled a select anthology of maritime prints from Claude, Van de Velde, and Vernet through to Turner, Stanfield, and Farrer. But Melville collected pastoral images as well as maritime ones, topographical engravings as well as urban antiquities, Biblical images as well as literary illustrations, ancient coins and arches as well as picturesque views of contemporary scenes. The prints he collected are at once as eclectic and comprehensive as is his treatment of the whale in Moby-Dick—or of the Holy Land in Clarel.

Melville differed from Goethe not only in the idiosyncratic element of his collection but in the privacy with which he preserved it. The Apollonian pride that caused Goethe to bequeath to the city of Weimar the pictorial artifacts that had helped to inspire his own literary art differed sharply from the way in which Melville appears to have quietly consigned his own collection to whomever among his most intimate survivors might possibly wish to care for it. In 1830, two years before his death, Goethe wrote to Chancellor Friedrich von Müller (in the letter in which he declared that “I did not collect by whim or arbitrarily”) that “it would be a pity if all this was to be dispersed” (Gleisberg 44). The 420 prints that Melville is known to have collected were dispersed.  Physically, they currently reside in the states of Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Virginia, Texas, and Ohio, as well as in London, England. Visually, electronically, and intellectually, they are reunited here.