- Melville Crosses Paths with the Young Scotch Artist
On his 1849 voyage to London to promote his newest work, White-Jacket; or The World in a Man-of-War, visit the site of his brother Gansevoort's death, and get a glimpse of western Europe, among Herman Melville's companions were a "a Scotch artist . . . a painter" accompanied by his wife and young son (Journals 4). The artist and his wife are identified in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's Journals (251–53) as Hudson River School painter William M. Hart (1823–94) and Janet (Wallace) Hart (1824–94). While Melville did not refer to the Harts by name, they are included in a version of the passenger list published on 12 Oct. 1849 in the New York Evening Post and the following day in the New-York Journal of Commerce. Although the Harts were Albany residents at that time, the newspaper gave their home as Troy, New York. William Hart's connection to Troy suggests that he and Herman Melville may have previously crossed paths even if they did not remember each other.
Melville wrote in his journal on 14 Oct.: "Saw a lady with a copy of "Omoo" in her hand two days ago. Now & then she would look up at me, as if comparing notes. She turns out to be the wife of a young Scotchman, an artist, going out to Scotland to sketch scenes for his patrons in Albany, including Dr. Armsby. He introduced himself to me by mentioning the name of Mr. Twitchell who painted my portrait gratis. He is a very unpretending young man, & looks more like a tailor than an artist. But appearances are &c" (6–7). Asa Weston Twitchell (1820–1904) had painted Melville's ca. 1846 portrait while both lived in Lansingburgh, NY, but the artist removed to Albany soon thereafter where he resided the rest of his career. William Hart arrived in Albany ca. 1835 with his family, including his brother, the future artist James M. Hart (1828–1901). As a boy, he was apprenticed to Troy carriage makers Eaton and Gilbert, decorating their coaches. After four years of hard physical work, William opened his first studio in a rude wooden shack at the foot of Mount Ida, where he executed portraits of factory and mill workers for five dollars a piece (Stiles 1145). [End Page 93]
In an article entitled "Art Matters" in the Troy Daily Arena on 10 Dec. 1859, the editor commented that William Hart's name was "among the first enrolled on the new records of the Young Men's Association." In the membership rolls of the Young Men's Association (YMA), now owned by the Troy Public Library, William Hart is listed as a new member in 1840 and also an attendee in 1841, before he left for a three-year stay in Michigan. Herman Melville, then a resident of Lansingburgh, was also a member, as documented by the YMA visitors' registers. On 18 May 1839, Herman brought John Taylor (1819–58) of Lansingburgh, his classmate at the Lansingburgh Academy, as his guest to visit the Association. We do not know whether Melville ever met William Hart at the Association's remarkable library. A newly identified "Holy Grail" for Melville biographers is a published catalog of the books owned by the YMA in 1840, surely consulted by Melville and Hart, but now missing at the Troy Public Library and not yet located elsewhere.