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Monday, May 4, 2015

Antoine Ignace Melling

View of the Bosporus, Antoine Ignace Melling
Though we seldom give it much thought today, it's hard to overstate the impact photography has had upon art. I'm guessing well over half the artists working today utilize photos to one degree or another in some aspect of the work. And that number has probably grown significantly with the advent of digital photography. Add to that the advantages of digital editing software all but totally replacing the darkroom. I know my own darkroom is now used solely for storage. I'd probably have to go online now to even buy the chemicals, maybe also the film to go back to using it for its original purpose, even though twenty years ago I used to spend hours at a time developing and printing photos for my portrait business. Moreover photography also had an effect upon those who didn't use photos in their work. It freed them from the bounds of realism, allowing them to experiment with both the paint itself and their images while photography carried the load of portraits and other genre demanding realism.
Market before the Tophane Fountain, Antoine Ignace Melling
Antoine Ignace Melling
Had there been photography in the early 1800s when the Frenchman, Antoine Melling, lived and worked as an artist, the man would have been out of a job. When the wealthy, or some high governmental official, traveled abroad, it was not uncommon for them to include in their entourage a sketch artist, watercolorist, or even a full-blown professional painter to record what they saw. Melling was one such artist. The same was almost always the case with 19th-century scientific exploration ventures even well after photography came into its own. Photography was usually seen as too bulky, impractical, or crude until George Eastman streamlined it and National Geographic magazine began to exhibit the results. Even at that, the photos were in black and white, or in the rare cases when color was needed, had to be hand-colored guessed it, artists (or at the very least, highly skilled technicians).
View of a Norman House, Antoine Ignace Melling
Antoine Melling was all that and more. He was also a talented architect. Born in 1763 Melling had little to worry about in terms of photography taking over his livelihood. He was dead and buried before the first photo was ever taken (he died in 1831). Melling was born on the border between Germany and the Alsace region of northeastern France, which made him technically German, but predominantly French in that he spent most of his life, when not traveling, in Paris. As a young man, Melling studied architecture in Austria as well as spending time learning to paint and draw in Italy and Egypt. At the age of nineteen, the Russian ambassador, apparently impressed by his talent, invited him along as his "human camera" when he was assigned to Constantinople.
Hatice Sultan Saray, Antoine Ignace Melling
Melling's book cover
I don't know how long the ambassador's posting lasted, but Melling remained in Constantinople for the next eighteen years. Of course, the Ottomans ruled Constantinople and the rest of Turkey at the time and it was through the ambassador that Melling met the Ottoman Sultan Selim III, and more importantly his close confident and sister, princess Hatice Sultan, who happened to be in the market for a good architect. (At the time, if you wanted to be a Turkish architect, you needed to do little more than go to a library, checked out some books on the subject, then printed up some business cards.) The princess wanted a labyrinth for her garden like that she'd seen while in visiting Denmark. Melling created one for her. Delighted, she asked him to redecorate her palace and even design clothes and jewelry for her. Versatile artist/architect/designers were a rare commodity in Muslim countries at the time. Eventually Melling went on to design for the princess and her brother a whole new Palace at Defterdarburnu. His access to the palaces of Constantinople allowed him to make dozens of highly detailed drawings, (as well as landscape watercolors of the city) which he took back to Paris with him in 1803. There, he published a book, Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore (Scenic Trip to Constantinople and the Bosporus).
Inside the Harem of the Sultan, c. 1810, Antoine Ignace Melling
The profusely illustrated book became a best-seller, and Melling became the court landscape painter for Napoleon's wife, Josephine. He set up a studio, painting for her some of the more picturesque vista of the countryside, then created etchings of his work which he hand-colored for sale to those who could not afford his paintings (copyright laws being such as they were at the time, if an artist didn't do his own etchings, someone else would, then take the money and run). Later (around 1812) Melling visited the Netherlands (ruled by France at the time) where he painted not just the large cities, but also fell in love with the Dutch village of Broek in Waterland and the peaceful little town of Zwolle. Later, Melling's "government job" allowed him to travel all around France painting and drawing cities and towns of all sizes, as well as to England as a sort of "foreign exchange" artist.
Peak of Midi de Bigorre, View of the Cabins of Tramasaigues, Antoine Melling
Sometime after 1821 the government sent Melling on a drawing expedition to the Pyrenees Mountains on the southern border of France to create illustrations for a book by Joseph Antoine Cervini titled Picturesque Travels in the French Pyrenees and the Adjacent Areas. The impetus for these "travelogue" books was to direct tourists to the south of France where the scenic vistas were to compete directly with those of the Swiss Alps. Both of Melling's books remained in print long after his death in 1831, their color illustrations having no equal for tourist purposes for more than a hundred years.

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