FRITZ SIGFRIED GEORG MELBYE
(Helsingør 1826 – Shanghai 1869)
Entrance to the Harbor of Havana
Oil on canvas, 21¼ x 15½ inches(39.4 x 53.9 cm)
Signed indistinctly lower right
Inscribed on the stretcher by the artist with the title in Danish:
“Indseilingen til Havnen ved Havanna”
Fritz Melbye trained with his older brother and fellow artist Anton Melbye in his native Helsingør (Elsinore) and, like him, painted principally seascapes, town and harbor views. At the age of twenty-three he set out for the Caribbean, eventually settling in Amalienborg (Charlotte Amalie), capital of Danish West Indies, now St. Thomas of the U.S. Virgin Islands. There he embarked on a career traveling and painting the sites and scenery across the region, through the West Indies, Hispaniola, and on to Venezuela. In Charlotte Amalie Melbye had met and formed a partnership with Camille Pissarro, who was born there, and the two were to remain close, with Melbye following Pissarro to Paris in 1853. Subsequently Melbye traveled to New York, where he was to live from 1861 to 1863, enjoying a friendship with Frederic Church, who accompanied him on a painting trip to Jamaica in 1865. From New York Melbye set off for Newfloundland, with trips following to Gibraltar, Santo Domingo, and Cuba. In 1867, Melbye embarked on a round-the-world journey and eventually settled in Peking. His death in Shanghai occurred two years later.
Melbye’s paintings combine the veracity of a view-painter with the romantic and seductive light of the Danish Golden Age painters. The present view of Havana harbor is an outstanding example of his work –the precision and accuracy of the view (attested to by contemporary engravings)—bathed in the bright and seductive light of the Caribbean sun. The lighthouse of Morro Castle (Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro) is seen at the end of the promontory at the right, while the walls and tower of La Cabaña (the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña), topped by a flag, appear closer to the viewer. On the left side of the harbor appears the Castillo de la Punta. The orientation of these buildings suggests that Melbye recorded his view from the ramparts of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. Although the harbor is much changed, all of these fortresses survive today. There is nothing specifically datable in the view, but on the basis of Melbye’s biography, a date around 1864 would seem likely.