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Scope of the Argument

Our presentation of each successive print in the context of the collection as a whole is the heart of this site, the evolving site of its multifaceted argument. Here I will briefly highlight fourteen facets of that argument, trusting that the viewer will perceive others inductively when exploring the site. Some of these facets relate directly to Melville’s own life and art. Others relate to broad interpretive issues, many of them interdisciplinary, with which scholars in a variety of fields have been deeply concerned during the early decades of the twenty-first century.

1. Archival retrieval. This most important thing this site does is to make available, for each visitor to see, 420 lasting objects from Melville’s personal and professional life. Each print is potentially as valuable as any book in his library for understanding his life, writing, mind, and domestic space. Unless a book from his library is annotated, we cannot always be sure how much of it he may have read. With each print we can be sure that his eye took it in.

2. Archival identification. In addition to visually reproducing the 420 engraved prints, this site identifies most of the 67 among them that include no information identifying the artist, engraver, subject, publisher or date. Those that we are now able to identify from the Berkshire Athenaeum include: (a) a rare colored lithograph after the Marriage of Saint Cecilia by Francesco Francia, (b) a Claudean landscape by Richard Wilson, (c) the first print after David Teniers the Younger that Melville is now known to have collected, (d) thirteen engravings illustrating the Song of Solomon that have been cut out of emblem books published in Germany in 1620 and 1622, and (e) twenty-five Old Testament images cut from an illustrated book of sermons published in the Netherlands in 1728.

3. Biography. This site offers a new intellectual and sensory biography of the last twenty-five years of Melville’s life, showing the vitality of his mind, art, and heart during a period in which his imaginative tenacity, intellectual range, and artistic achievement have been severely underestimated. The archival retrieval and identification of the prints he collected adds a new material dimension to our knowledge of the life, opening up new possibilities for literary, artistic, cultural, and familial interpretation.

4. Literary criticism. This site offers a new conceptual and artistic framework for understanding Melville’s achievement as a literary artist. Melville’s prints provide direct and dramatic illumination of the poetry he wrote while collecting them (especially in Clarel, Timoleon, and “At the Hostelry,” his imaginary conversation among Old Master painters), but his elderly acquisitions also shed retrospective light on the fiction he wrote as a younger man.

5. The whole man. This site offers a new and necessary way of perceiving the continuity of Melville’s entire career as a literary artist. The prints he collected late in life relate to the early fiction as well as the late poetry. They provide a material link between the self-education in visual art that Melville undertook when writing that early fiction and his intensification of that self-education while writing the late poetry. In addition to enabling us to see new relations between books and pictures throughout Melville’s mature creative life, the prints give new importance to the 1849-50 and 1856-57 journals as records of Melville’s experience of the picture galleries of England and the Continent as catalysts for personal and professional growth.

6. Literature and painting. The prints that Melville collected relate to more than his own life and art. Recent scholarship in literature and the arts has revealed the degree to which not only Goethe in Germany and Hazlitt in England but a whole range of nineteenth-century American writers (Cooper, Hawthorne, Whitman, Douglass, Dickinson, James, and Wharton) were deeply influenced by the pictorial arts. Melville’s print collection, among his American literary contemporaries, was unique in its size, quality, and imaginative power.

7. America and England. Scholars in recent decades have achieved a deeper understanding of a variety of ways in which nineteenth-century American authors established their own cultural identity through active assimilation—as well as conflicted rejection—of English cultural models. The rich and varied collection of prints after English artists and subjects that Melville collected (requiring two “chapters” of this site to reveal) constitute a very precise and tangible kind of Anglo-American exchange. So did Melville’s assimilation of the English art critics he read in the late 1840s (Hazlitt, Ruskin, and Eastlake) and again later in life (more Hazlitt, more Ruskin, plus Cosmo Monkhouse, Lucy Baxter, Alexander Gilchrest, and others). His appreciation of all those English art critics was materially deepened by all the prints after paintings by European Old Masters that he acquired. 

8. Transatlantic studies. Transatlantic studies today often focus on the traffic of enslaved Africans to sites in the Americas in European ships (the subject of Melville’s Benito Cereno). Most of Melville’s prints do not deal directly with this transatlantic subject, though eleven of them memorably do (those he collected from Marryat’s The Pirate). Most of the transatlantic exchanges in Melville’s print collection involve his physical and intellectual appropriation of the ways in which Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, German, and English artists, engravers, and publishers have depicted the cultural heritage of their own nations and of European and Near Eastern cultures generally. Clarel, published in America’s centennial year of 1876, is Melville’s most comprehensive meditation on this nation’s transatlantic heritage broadly defined; all four sections of its epic pilgrimage are deeply enriched by the pictorial knowledge embodied in the prints he collected. Moby-Dick was Melville’s apocalyptic, transpacific vision of Young America in extremis; Clarel is his passionate, transatlantic plea for an “intersympathy of creeds” among the Near Eastern religions. The tension between those two visions remains at play in our own day.

9. Art history. Many of the prints that Melville collected are treasured objects in the history of printmaking (Earlom’s mezzotints of Claude Lorrain, William Woollett’s engraving of Claude’s Enchanted Castle; Claude’s own etching of one of his harbor scenes; Turner’s own mezzotint of his Entrance to Calais Harbor; Flaxman’s illustrations of Dante; exquisite images after erotically charged images by Boucher and Watteau). Many others are valuable primarily for the association with Melville himself—the fact that this literary artist acquired a work of that subject or by that artist. Taken as a whole, his collection offers a unique, yet culturally representative look at what one great American mind in the second half of the nineteenth-century viewed as the art that was most worth collecting. His collection also shows what was available in New York City to one passionate collector with a relatively limited budget.

10. Imaginative act. Although many literary critics would tend to see the activity of a writer who collects visual images as something that is secondary or supplemental to the work of writing itself, as a kind of innocent diversion or harmless pastime, I have come to see Melville’s collecting as more of a primary activity, one whose imaginative range and comprehensive scope is in some ways comparable to what is required for writing book of fiction or a book of epic poetry. Putting a collection of more than four hundred prints together was a creative and imaginative act requiring both tenacity and passion. In one way, however, this act was entirely different from that of writing a novel or an epic poem. The latter occupations require the author to generate from within oneself the words and rhythms and story with which to reach the hearts and minds of others. Collecting prints is more of a additive occupation, pulling into one’s own life lasting objects from outside one’s own experience. Writing and collecting are contrasting ways of opening an intercourse with the world.

11. New York collector. Because Melville did the bulk of his collecting during the first twenty years of the existence of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when such future donors to public collections as Benjamin Altman, Henry Frick, and the Havermeyers were beginning to build their own private collections in their own private mansions, Melville’s collecting has a broader cultural resonance than if considered only in the context of his home at 204 East 26th Street. The degree to which the prints he collected paralleled, or diverged from, the paintings collected by these future museum donors was culturally, as well as personally, significant.

12. Pictorial judgment. Given what was available to a collector of his means, Melville showed impressive foresight. The Persian tile he brought home from the Near East in 1857 was identical to one that was donated to the Metropolitan Museum in 1883—but was not interpreted or exhibited until the Museum’s first exhibition and catalog of Persian Tiles in 1993. The double portrait of a man and camel that Melville acquired after Stefano della Bella was originally etched in Paris in 1649; the first exhibition of della Bella’s work in America was mounted by the New York Met in 1968, followed by the first catalog in 1971. Melville’s collection of thirty-three prints after Turner is exceptionally strong for a late 19th-century American; many of his prints were in Turner’s late style that even Ruskin, Turner’s great champion at mid-century, had repudiated. Ruskin had famously elevated Turner by ridiculing Claude Lorrain; Melville was exceptionally selective, and comprehensive, in his collection of both artists.

13. Clarel and the print collection. Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael was a major contribution to Melville scholarship in 1947 because Olson, reading Moby-Dick with the eye of a poet immersed in Shakespeare, articulated the depth with which Melville had assimilated Shakespeare’s artistry and vision far beyond what was visible on the surface of the text. Olson helped others to see Moby-Dick not only as an American whaling novel but as a book in deep dialogue with the most powerful of Elizabethan dramatists. Clarel is in comparable dialogue with the history of pictorial art, a dimension that makes it much more than “A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land.” Melville’s buried allusions to prints he acquired after French, German, Flemish, Dutch, German, British, and American artists illuminate not only incidental but absolutely central elements of its story and meaning.

14. Home gallery. Melville’s collection had its most intimate, poignant meaning in the context of his home on East 26th Street. I have already noted the potential symbolism of his framing the mezzotint of The Healing of the Blind, presumably for display in the family home, less than two years after his first child Malcolm had committed suicide within its walls. Other framed prints were deeply woven into his life with his granddaughters. In the biography she published sixty years later, Melville’s granddaughter Eleanor Metcalf recalled that every time they returned from a walk in Central Park he would “stop in the front hall under a coloured engraving of the Bay of Naples” and point with his cane to its “tiny white sails,” saying, “See the little boats sailing hither and thither” (Metcalf 282). In the “Reminiscence” she published more than seventy years after the fact, his granddaughter Frances Osborne still remembered the pictures of the whalers “hanging on the stairway leading to my little room on the third story” that had frightened her whenever she slept at her grandfather’s house (Osborne 184).