Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Shade of Napoleon Brooding over his Tomb--Hidden Art

This is one of the variant images Melville had in mind in the last chapter of THE CONFIDENCE-MAN. When I was working on the 2006 Norton Critical Edition I hit the passage on "the figure of Napoleon outlined by the tree" and decided, Duh!, that he was referring to something his audience would recognize. I Googled

Napoleon outline tree

and immediately got one image of an 1830 engraving--an example of hidden art, where you either can't see the standing figure of Napoleon or else can't stop seeing the standing figure of Napoleon. Now, the next day I tried to locate the Internet site again and found it only after many attempts and with different key words. Go figure, not to pun too humorously.

One moral here: if we even slightly sense that there is something covert going on in a 19th text, something that looks a trifle like a topical allusion---go to Google! I got triangular duel that way, for the 2006 NCE.


  1. Note how Kierkegaard uses this same engraving in The Concept of Irony.

  2. Yes, I had not read the Kierkegaard book but I saw on the Internet that he referred to the engraving too. It must have been very widely known. Tom knew about the willows before he sailed, when he promised to visit the grave. There could have been other sources for Tom, but the picture was indeed famous.

    WEST PORT May 3, 1846 Thomas Melville before sailing on the Theophilus Chase struggles to write a proper letter to his sister "Hellen":
    . . . Before I come back I will proberably visit the Grave of Napoleon, that Ceaser of Modern history and you may tell Miss Lyzy Shaw that I will fetch her a peace of one of the willows (that droope their heads over the spot hounoured by being chose as the resting place of one of the greatest men that ever lived) to put in her collection of o[d]ds and ends.


  3. It was Larry Reynolds as literary historian, not critic. I don't think he would justify his transcription by saying he was following what John Bryant would call his "rhetorical agenda." I just think he found Tom's hand hard to read and did not know the context, the routes of Atlantic whale ships, or where Napoleon's corpse had first rested.

    When conscientious people can't read old handwriting maybe it's time to have a little practice in introductions to graduate study if such courses are still taught.

  4. Check out the cover illustration of Stephen Prickett's Narrative, Religion, and Science (2002). Prickett reports that the actual illustration was unknown to our century until one of his Glasgow grad students located it in Copenhagen's Royal Library.

  5. I should have read your opening sentence more carefully...."one of the variant images" employing this optical illusion. Found four readily enough from the 1830-1850 era, convinces me the paradox was a commonplace. Intriguing all the same, thanks for sharing.

  6. Have you found an American version? or one in an English book as opposed to a separate engraving? Yes, I realized that I could not claim any particular engraving was the source, so I should not have said "engraving" in he NCE footnote. I did not know which one HM knew, if he knew only one version. Main thing: Napoleon was omnipresent and this image was popular. Look at Tom's fascination in that letter to Helen.

    Still, I like the image of the whaleboat sailing up the Seine and mooring at the Invalides.

  7. Melville probably viewed Nathaniel Currier's hand-colored lithograph of The Shade and Tomb of Napoleon, printed as early as 1835 when Currier was operating at 1 Wall St.


    Also see The Shade and Tomb of Washington

  8. The Currier is a terrific catch! But what a lumpy Napoleon in this engraving!
    So--available in the USA.
    Now I will check the Washington.

  9. The Washington did not work for me.