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Self-Education in Visual Art

When researching the book on Melville and Turner that I published in 1992, I was surprised to discover the degree to which Melville had educated himself in visual art while writing the five novels that preceded Moby-Dick. Melville makes passing mention of Teniers and Stonehenge in Typee and of Hogarth in Omoo.  Claude, Wouvermans, Gudin, and Isabey appear in Mardi. In Redburn Guido Reni and Salvatore Rosa enter his fiction, followed by Hogarth, Cruikshank, and Wilkie in White-Jacket. Cellini, Guido, Hogarth, Durer, and the Cologne Cathedral appear in Moby-Dick. But it is not so much the allusions to individual artists as the author’s evolving aesthetic expression that impresses in Melville’s early novels. In Typee and Omoo he adopts a familiar and conversational ease in alluding to aesthetic matters derived from his reading in Hazlitt. In Mardi he begins to present aesthetic insights in abstract language indebted heavily to John Ruskin’s Modern Painters I, first published in America in 1847 (Sealts nos. 430, 431). By the time of “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in Moby-Dick, Melville is blending insights from Charles Lock Eastlake’s Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts and Materials for a History of Oil Painting (Sealts nos. 198 and 199) with what he had already assimilated from Hazlitt and Ruskin.  Some of the insights in Melville’s “Whiteness” chapter are from Eastlake’s reprint of his own “Extracts from the Translation of Goethe’s Theory of Colours” in the Contributions volume.[1] 

All of the reading about art that had enriched the writing of his first five novels in the later 1840s had prepared Melville for the ultimate Hazlitt-inspired initiation into the visual arts, still rare for an American at the time, the opportunity of seeing authentic paintings of the Old Masters face-to-face. During six weeks in London in November and December 1849, Melville visited the National Gallery three times and the adjacent Vernon Gallery at least once—in addition to his aforementioned visits to the Dulwich Gallery, Hampton Court, and Windsor Castle. In addition, he made two separate visits to the private gallery of the poet Samuel Rogers, whose personal collection was reputed to be the finest in all of London. During a short trip across the English Channel to France and Germany, Melville saw engravings at the Bibliothèque Royal and paintings at the Louvre and Versailles in addition to the museums and Cathedral of Cologne. 

Three years later in Pierre Melville encapsulated the deep, sustained thrill of this pictorial initiation by writing of “the great galleries of Europe,” with “their wonderful multitudinousness of surpassing excellence.” “No calm, penetrative person can have victoriously run that painted gauntlet of the gods, without certain very special emotions” (NN P 350). The emotions expressed here are Melville’s own, but some of the language that conveys it is condensed from Hazlitt’s account of his own “first sight of the Old Masters” at the Louvre (in the Table Talk essay “On the Pleasure of Painting”): “I ran the gauntlet of all the schools from the bottom to the top” of this “tenantless mansion of godlike magnificence . . .  I marched delighted through a quarter of a mile of the proudest efforts of the mind of man, a whole creation of genius, a universe of art!” (1: 14-15).

Hazlitt had first marched through the Louvre in 1802, when the Peace of Amiens opened up travel between England and France (and when Herman Melville’s father Allan, four years younger than Hazlitt, was making his own first visit to France and its picture galleries). Young Herman had hoped to travel to Italy and the Mediterranean after his first visit to the Louvre in early December 1849, but he did not sell White-Jacket to an English publisher as quickly as he hoped. And he was eager to return to his wife Elizabeth and their first child Malcolm, now nine months old. So he sailed home from Portsmouth on December 25 and arrived in New York on January 31, 1850. 

When Melville did reach Rome and its picture galleries on February 25, 1857, he was turning home after visiting Egypt, Palestine, and Constantinople on a restorative nine-month voyage following eleven years of fiction writing that had seriously strained his physical and, some thought, his mental health. After nearly a month in Rome, during which he took notes on his visits to all of the major galleries and monuments, he spent one week in the galleries of Florence and another in the galleries of Venice before crossing over to Genoa and then crossing the Alps. Short stops in Strasbourg and Heidelberg quickly brought him to the Netherlands, where he saw the major galleries of Amsterdam and Rotterdam before a week in London in which the National Gallery and the new Turner Gallery were the only ones he mentioned in his journal. 

After landing in New York in May 1857 from the voyage that had begun in October 1856, Melville resumed his professional life not as a novelist but as a lecturer, hoping to be able to support his family on the Lyceum circuit. During the Lyceum season of 1857-58 he gave sixteen lectures in widely spaced American cities, all of them on “Statues in Rome.” That first day in Rome had been a “new birth-day” for him. In the short term, it inspired the lectures he gave during the first year after his return home. In the long term, it fueled the poetic career that led to Clarel and Timoleon well as the collecting career that is the subject of this site.

When viewed as the culmination of Melville’s eleven-year career as a writer of fiction, the journal he kept during his nine-month voyage to the eastern Mediterranean at times seems brief and perfunctory, lacking in the dramatic characterization and philosophical questing that had powered his fiction. Viewed as the impetus for his thirty-four-year career as an active poet and collector of prints, that same journal, in combination with the earlier 1849 journal in which he carefully recorded his impressions of galleries in England, France, and Germany, is a seedbed of knowledge and artistic creativity. The first complete edition of Melville’s Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent, 1849-50 was published by Melville’s granddaughter Eleanor Melville Metcalf in 1948. The first reliable edition of his Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant, October 11, 1856—May 6, 1857 was published by Howard C. Horsford in 1955. Both journals are superbly edited and annotated in Horsford’s 1989 Northwestern-Newberry edition of the Journals, providing a secure foundation for further study of Melville’s personal immersion not only in the picture galleries of Western Europe but in the cultures and religions of the Near East.

[1] For a detailed analysis of Melville’s self-education in the fine arts while writing the five novels which preceded Moby-Dick, see Robert K. Wallace, Melville and Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), chapters 2-6.