Skip to main content

New York Collector

Our first direct evidence of Herman Melville as a collector of prints is a letter he wrote to Elias Dexter, a New York picture-framer and print-dealer, on May 13, 1869. With regard to “that Mezzotint, The Healing of the Blind, which I left at your place,” Melville asked Dexter to “pray, be good enough to cause the Lettering at bottom, when cut off, to be glued on the back of the frame.” He also mentioned being “glad, by the way, that my chance opinion of the picture receives the confirmation of such a judge as yourself.” Melville concluded the short letter by saying, “Let me thank you for the little print after Murillo” (NN CO 409). Curiously, no print entitled “The Healing of the Blind” survives among the prints Melville is known to have collected. Nor has any print after Murillo, “little” or otherwise, as yet been identified as being from Melville’s collection. 

Lynn Horth in her headnote to the 1869 letter to Dexter suggests that “the mezzotint Melville had left for him to frame was probably from the painting by Nicolas Poussin of Christ healing the blind men of Jericho, painted in 1651, now in the Louvre” (409). Given that Melville acquired several other engravings after Poussin, two of which are framed, this seems a likely supposition. Yet the subject of the healing of the blind was addressed by several European artists represented in Melville’s collection. Jay Leyda suggested that Rembrandt was the artist whose mezzotint Melville left with Dexter (Leyda, 2: 701), and we offer a third possibility in CAT 111. Whoever the artist was, the subject of the healing may have had special meaning to Melville and his wife Elizabeth in 1869 because two years earlier, on September 11, 1867, in the words of the New York Times, “Malcolm Melville, a youth of 18 years of age, son of a well-known literary figure, committed suicide yesterday by shooting himself with a pistol” (Leyda, 2: 689). Not only had Malcolm, the Melvilles’ first-born child, apparently taken his own life when only in his teens; he had done so in his bedroom in the family home at 204 East 26th Street. 

The fact that Melville had not only acquired the mezzotint of The Healing of the Blind that he left with Dexter, but chose to have it framed, may possibly represent a joint decision by Elizabeth and himself to display this image in the domestic space they shared, perhaps to help in their own mutual healing. One year later Melville acquired the essay in which he marked the passage about “our intercourse with the dead” in which Hazlitt declares that “there are only three pleasures in life pure and lasting, and all derived from inanimate objects—books, pictures, and the face of nature.” During the same month in which Melville acquired Hazlitt’s essay—May 1870—he was himself rendered memorably inanimate by sitting for a portrait by Joseph Oriel Eaton (FIG 1: Eaton Portrait of Melville). The portrait was a gift to Herman’s mother Maria from his brother-in-law John Hoadley, who had married his sister Kate. After Maria’s death in 1872, the painting passed to the Hoadleys. After the death of John Hoadley in 1886, it arrived at the Melville home on East 26th Street, where it was soon to make a strong impression on two of Herman’s granddaughters. Before slipping into the private vicissitudes of Melville family life, Eaton’s depiction of Herman had received some public exposure in 1871 as part of “the spring exhibit at the new white-marble-walled National Academy of Design at Fourth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street” (Parker, Herman Melville, 2: 704-5, 715, 907).

Herman’s 1869 letter to Dexter is the first and only surviving letter in which Melville directly addresses his activity as a collector of prints. Those prints that have survived are themselves almost the only direct evidence we have of what his collection may have meant to him. Sometimes he has written an annotation on the front or back of a print identifying its artist, engraver, or subject. Sometimes the print-framer’s name and address on the back of a frame helps us surmise where and when Melville might have ordered the frame. Most of what little we do know about his collecting activities comes from immediate family members or visitors to the home. His wife Elizabeth kept a memorandum book in which she mentions a few of the prints along with other art works (a statue of Antinous, another of Ariadne). His granddaughter Eleanor Melville Metcalf, who published the edition of the London Journal in 1948, published a biography of Melville in 1953 in which she recalled seeing certain prints when she visited his home as a child (she was nine years old when he died). Eleanor’s next youngest sister Frances Cuthbert Osborne, born in 1883, also was old enough to have sharp impressions of her grandfather, his books, and his pictures when she visited his home in the years immediately before his death; she published her recollections in 1965. The other two granddaughters, Katharine, born in 1890, and Jeannette, born in 1892, were too young to have direct memories of their grandfather, but they too have helped to preserve some of the family lore about his later years. Descendants today will still occasionally ask how he could have spent scarce resources on engraved art work when he had trouble feeding his family. It is rumored, too, that he would occasionally cut an engraving out of a book.

The public record of Melville as a collector began on October 1, 1891, five days after his death, in the New-York Daily Tribune. In an anonymous article entitled “Herman Melville’s Funeral,” Arthur Stedman, who was well acquainted with the author in the years immediately before his death, provided many little-known details about Melville’s literary and personal life. Stedman mentioned that Melville had published the private edition of Timoleon earlier in 1891; he concluded his article with one its poems, “L’Envoi.” Stedman also mentioned that Melville was “much interested in collecting engravings of the old masters, having a large library and a fine assortment of prints, those of Claude’s paintings being a favorite” (Sealts, Early Lives, 99-101). As the early stirrings of a Melville revival got underway, Lewis Mumford in his 1929 biography mentioned in passing that Melville collected prints after Rembrandt and Flaxman and that “Claude and Turner were his masters” in landscape (Mumford 336). In 1938 the distinguished art historian Frank Jewett Mather II, in an article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, mentioned having seen some “silvery prints after Poussin and Claude” on the walls of the New York apartment in which Melville’s widow was preserving many of his former belongings a decade after his death (Mather 555-56).

None of these brief mentions give any idea of the breadth of Melville’s collection or of the manner by which he managed to acquire his prints. One specific bit of information about where he may have acquired some of his prints late in life comes from Oscar Wegelin in a 1935 memoir. As an employee in John Anderson’s bookstore, which Melville frequented in the years shortly before his death, Wegelin had occasionally taken a purchase to Melville’s home (Wegelin 21-24). Anderson was also a print dealer with a specialty in Turner, extremely well represented in Melville’s collection, so some of the deliveries Wegelin made from his bookstore may have included prints as well. Our most telling evidence for how Melville was able to afford the prints he bought late in life originated with his granddaughter Eleanor in her 1953 biography. She mentioned the bequest that Herman’s wife Elizabeth received from her Massachusetts relatives in 1885 that allowed Herman to retire from the Custom House and Elizabeth to give him $25 a month for the purchase of “books and prints” (Metcalf 265).  Many of the prints he is now known to have collected may well have been acquired during the last six years of his life. But which of the 420 these were, or how many of them were purchased during those years, there is currently no way to know. And the 1869 letter to Dexter, with precise instructions for cutting off  “the Lettering” at the bottom of the mezzotint of The Healing of the Blind so it could be “glued on the back of the frame,” showed that Herman was already a very serious and careful collector long before Elizabeth received her bequest (NN CO 409).

Whenever, from whomever, and however Melville did manage to acquire all of his prints, the collection he assembled between his 1869 letter to Dexter and his death in 1891 is impressive. He was collecting his prints during the same years in which Benjamin Altman, Louisine and Henry Havemeyer, and Henry C. Frick were beginning to acquire the paintings that were to enter the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection in the 1910s and 1920s. This is seen in the book that Esmée Quodbach wrote to accompany the 226 paintings from the Dutch Golden Age that the Metropolitan Museum exhibited from its own collection in 2006. Like the exhibition itself, Quodbach presents the donors who had given these works in the order in which their donations had arrived in the Museum’s collection. The Original Purchase of 1871 contained many Dutch paintings that were on display when the Museum first opened its doors to the public on February 20, 1872. Soon thereafter, an extended economic recession so depressed the market that no new Dutch paintings were added to the collection until Harry G. Marquand donated 37 paintings to the Museum in 1889 and another 15 in 1890. These included the Portrait of a Man that was “perhaps the first authentic Rembrandt to come to the United States” and the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher that was probably “the first authentic work by Johannes Vermeer” to enter the country (Quodbach 10-12). 

It was a pleasure for me to visit the 2006 exhibition in which all of the Dutch paintings still at the Metropolitan Museum were arranged according to the years in which they had been acquired (some of the early purchases had been deaccessioned over the years). Walking from one room to another, I could see paintings that Melville would have been able to see after the successive acquisitions in 1871, 1889, and 1890. The surprise in doing so was how mediocre most of those paintings were by today’s standards—apart from the Rembrandt, the Vermeer, and a beautiful View of Haarlem and the Haarlemmer Meer by Jan van Goyen from the 1871 Original Purchase. 

Quodbach shows that the Dutch holdings at the Met began to be truly distinguished only after Benjamin Altman donated thirteen Rembrandts, along with major works by Hals, Cuyp, Vermeer, Dou, and ter Borch, in 1913. These were followed by five more Rembrandts and masterpieces by Hals and de Hooch given by the Havemeyers in 1929. Although these two major bequests came to the Museum decades after Melville’s death, Altman and the Havemeyers had begun their collecting in Europe in the 1870s and 1880s, displaying their purchases to their own private mansions in New York before deeding them to a public museum. The same pattern was followed by Henry C. Frick—who had first been noticed for his collecting proclivities in 1870, who began his serious collecting after “his first trip abroad” to Europe in 1881, and who purchased an average of one painting a week from 1895 “until the end of the century” (Grier 3-5). Frick also kept his treasured acquisitions in his private mansions, first in Pittsburgh and then in New York, before the Frick Collection was opened to the public in 1920. 

While private collectors such as the Altmans, the Havermeyers, and Frick were amassing their magnificent collections in their private mansions in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, the Metropolitan Museum was entirely dependent on the whims of individual donors such as Marquand, who were few and far between. Not until 1905, when Jacob S. Rogers of New Jersey made a gift of $5 million, was the Museum able to create its own acquisition fund. This gift produced an annual income of $200,000 per year “for the purchase of rare and desirable art objects, and in the purchase of books” (Quodbach 19-20). This was the Museum’s equivalent of the $25 a month that Elizabeth was able to give Herman for the purchase of “books and prints” after 1885.  

By the time of Melville’s death in 1891, his collection of Dutch landscapes included one or more engravings after paintings by Swanevelt, Both, Berghem, Cuyp, Backhuizen, Hobbema, Ruisdael, van Everdingen, Neyts, Wouvermans, Potter, van der Heyden, and Devel. His collection of Dutch figure paintings included one or more engravings after paintings by Rembrandt, Lairesse, Meiris, Metzu, Netscher, ter Borch, Van Ostade, and Teniers the Younger. A great number of these painters had not yet entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum at the time of Melville’s death (the first painting by Wouvermans did not arrive until 1971). The monthly allowance from Elizabeth’s bequest gave Herman more freedom than before to build his collection in a more comprehensive way, in both quantity and quality. But it was his own knowledge and taste, in the Dutch school as well as in others, that allowed him to achieve the range and quality he eventually achieved.