Paintings of Egypt 1: History

Luc-Olivier Merson (1846–1920), Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1880), oil, dimensions not known, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

As we in the northern hemisphere approach the longest night of the year, I thought this weekend we’d visit Egypt, which should at least be rather warmer than it is further north. Today I have a selection of paintings showing a little history, then tomorrow we can visit Cairo and other places.

The land around the River Nile supported one of the oldest civilisations in Europe, going back to more than three millennia BCE. Some of the oldest paintings that can be reliably interpreted as being narrative are those of the ancient Egyptians. By about 1300 BC there were many good examples of stories being told through paintings on various supports, most clearly the Books of the Dead to accompany royal burials.

Unknown, The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani (c 1300 BCE), The British Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani (c 1300 BCE), now in The British Museum, is one of the clearest examples. In the lower tier of images, the painting is read from the left. It first shows Ani and his wife Tutu entering the assembly of the gods. The centre section shows the god Anubis weighing Ani’s heart against the feather of Maat; should his heart be heavier, then he will not be admitted to heaven.

This procedure is observed by the goddesses Renenutet and Meshkenet, the god Shay, and his own soul or ‘ba’ bird. The right section of the lower tier shows the monster Ammut, who is poised to devour Ani’s soul if his heart were to prove heavy, hence unworthy of heaven. Thoth is there to record the outcome. The upper tier shows the other gods overseeing proceedings.

During the first couple of centuries CE, Romans who lived in cities to the south of Cairo were buried with some of the earliest known funerary portraits painted using encaustic (wax) media.

Anonymous, Funerary Portrait of a Woman 'The European' (c 80 - 200 CE), encaustic on cedar panel, 42 x 24 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. By dalbera from Paris, France, via Wikimedia Commons.
Anonymous, Funerary Portrait of a Woman ‘The European’ (c 80 – 200 CE), encaustic on cedar panel, 42 x 24 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. By dalbera from Paris, France, via Wikimedia Commons.

This portrait of a woman known now as The European is among the most hauntingly beautiful of these, and was made between 80-200 CE using encaustic paint on a cedar panel. Rendered in fine, close-packed strokes of encaustic wax to model the form, the eyelashes have been formed by scraping away wax to reveal the underlying black ground. Small squares of gold leaf were applied around her neck, and the board cut down to size to fit the facial area of the woman’s mummy for interment.

The painter is believed to have been one of many professionals who made funerary portraits for the Romans who lived in the Egyptian city of Antinoöpolis, on the bank of the River Nile. Hundreds of others have been extracted from the underground burial sites of the Roman settlements along the Nile Valley. Among the most famous sites are Fayum, to the south of Cairo, Antinoöpolis further to the south, and Thebes, towards the southern limit of these Pharaonic Settlements.

When these artistic treasures of Egypt were being discovered and removed to European museums and private collections, artists of northern Europe painted episodes from the Bible that were set in Egypt.

Edward Poynter (1836–1919), Israel in Egypt (1867), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Guidhall Art Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Israel in Egypt (1867) is one of Edward Poynter’s first grand spectacles, a highly-detailed panorama intended to show the Israelites during their time in bondage in Egypt. Although the popular press appreciated his archaeological basis, archaeologists of the day pointed out how he conflated elements from the temples of Thebes, Edfu, and Philae, together with the Great Pyramid at Giza, and the limestone cliffs of Thebes. That said, it remains impressive.

José María Avrial y Flores (1807–1891), Pharaoh’s Daughter Rescuing Moses from the Nile (1862), oil on canvas, 70 x 96 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In José María Avrial’s Pharaoh’s Daughter Rescuing Moses from the Nile from 1862, the story of Moses’ infancy is told in the tiny group of figures overwhelmed by its massive buildings. The artist provides a literal account, with Moses’ sister Miriam watching from the lower left corner as her baby brother is presented to Pharaoh’s daughter.

More popular than the Old Testament story of the baby Moses being found in the rushes on the bank of the River Nile, was the flight to Egypt of the Holy Family to save the life of Jesus from Herod’s massacre of infants. Although the great majority of those paintings didn’t attempt to depict Egypt with any degree of fidelity, during the nineteenth century artists became better informed and tried to incorporate local landscapes.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Virgin and Child in Egypt (1810), tempera on canvas, 30 x 25 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum (Given by Paul Mellon), London. Image courtesy of and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

William Blake’s Virgin and Child in Egypt from 1810 is one of his unusual glue tempera paintings in which he achieves fine modelling of flesh. This is in essence a Virgin and Child against Blake’s imagined view of the Pyramids, and a tiny Sphinx, together with the River Nile and the city of Cairo.

Luc-Olivier Merson (1846–1920), Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1880), oil, dimensions not known, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Luc-Olivier Merson was skilled at taking traditional if not hackneyed stories and reinventing them in haunting images. His version of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1880) shows the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Jesus at the foot of a sphinx, whose head is turned up to stare at its vast night sky. I suspect he had seen a much earlier nocturne of this theme painted by Adam Elsheimer, but arrived at a completely different view.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), The Flight into Egypt (c 1907), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

In about 1907, Henry Ossawa Tanner painted The Flight into Egypt in which he strived for greater geographical authenticity in its sketchy composition.

Napoleon’s overseas campaigns were still relatively recent history for French artists of the nineteenth century. My last three paintings for today show scenes from his campaign in Egypt between 1798-1801.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Napoleon Bonaparte Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo, 23rd October 1798 (1808), oil on canvas, 365 × 500 cm, Château de Versailles, Versailles, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1806, Napoleon himself commissioned Pierre-Narcisse Guérin to paint for the Gallery of Diana in the Tuileries Palace, resulting in Napoleon Bonaparte Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo, 23rd October 1798 (1808).

Napoleon had taken the French army into Egypt in 1798, and conquered Alexandria and Cairo. On 21 October, the citizens of Cairo organised an uprising, and murdered the French commander and Napoleon’s aide-de-camp. The French fought back with artillery, then the cavalry fought their way back into the city, forcing the rebels out into the desert, or into the Great Mosque. Napoleon brought his artillery to bear on that mosque, following which his troops stormed the building, killing or wounding over five thousand. With control restored over Cairo, the leaders of the revolt were hunted down and executed. As punishment, the city was put under military rule and taxed heavily.

Guérin’s painting appears to show a quite different event, in which Napoleon is engaged in open discourse with the rebels. However the presence of French cavalry behind the Egyptians, and the action taking place at the far right, suggests the truth behind the ‘pardon’. Not for the first time, history painting had become blatant propaganda.

Léon Cogniet (1794–1880), Bonaparte’s 1798 Egyptian Expedition (1835), ?fresco ceiling, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Léon Cogniet was also called to document Napoleon’s empire, painting his Bonaparte’s 1798 Egyptian Expedition (1835) on a ceiling in the Louvre Palace, as an explanation of how so many Egyptian artefacts come to be in Paris, ironically now on display in that same building.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), General Bonaparte and his Staff in Egypt (1867), oil on canvas, 58.4 x 88.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Léon Gérôme also produced several later paintings showing Napoleon in Egypt, including this highly detailed and intricate version of General Bonaparte and his Staff in Egypt from 1867.