After the first article in this series of two, we’re still enjoying the warmer winter in Egypt, and ready to take a quick tour, thanks to this selection of views of Cairo, the Pyramids, and other notable locations.
With increasingly reliable means of travel in the early nineteenth century, it became more feasible for artists to travel to North Africa, including Egypt, which could also be coupled with a visit to the holy sites of Palestine. Quite inappropriately, this became dubbed Orientalism, although the great majority of works were painted in lands to the south rather than the east of Europe.
In December 1842 and January 1843, before he became mentally ill, the young British artist Richard Dadd accompanied his patron on an extended cruise on the River Nile, enabling Dadd to paint several archaeological sites.
Tombs of the Khalifs, Cairo (c 1842-43) is a conventional watercolour ‘drawing’ which must have been just the sort of illustration his patron would have wanted for the book he was writing about these travels.
A decade later, the young Pre-Raphaelite landscape artist Thomas Seddon travelled to Palestine and Egypt to paint.
Seddon’s watercolour View on the Nile near Cairo is dated 1855, but I suspect it was painted prior to his journey to Jerusalem in May 1854; if not then, in the autumn of 1856 at the start of his second visit to Cairo.
Seddon’s last painting, of The Pyramids at Gizeh, is believed to have been painted in the autumn of 1856, and there’s also a second version of this view with even richer colours of sunset. Shortly afterwards, Seddon contracted dysentery, and died of that in Cairo on 23 November 1856, aged only thirty-five. The following year his paintings were exhibited at a memorial exhibition, and even the critic John Ruskin praised his “perfect artistical skill” and “topographical accuracy”.
Alberto Pasini visited Egypt a few years later, where he painted this marvellous view of Al-Khudayri Street, Cairo in 1861. Although it has been claimed to show the ancient Ibn Tulun mosque, its famous spiral minaret, and the Saladin fortress in the city, it looks more of a composite inspired by those buildings rather than a faithful depiction. The street below is bustling with those passing through, and the market stalls to the right. Pasini has been careful not to show the face of any of the figures, though.
Other artists made their way out into the desert to paint some of the spectacular ancient remains. The two colossi associated with the myth of Memnon at Al Bairat near Luxor had been known since classical times, and became popular motifs for Orientalist artists in the nineteenth century.
Gustav W. Seitz’s Egypt: the Statues of Memnon, seen here as a colour lithograph of his original watercolour, is highly atmospheric, and an excellent demonstration of the moon illusion.
The colours in Charles Vacher’s watercolour of The Statues of the Memnons (1864) are superb.
Albert Zimmermann’s oil painting of The Memnon Statues captures the heat haze, and shows a snake moving through the water.
Jean-Léon Gérôme was another artist who fell in love with Egypt during his first visit in 1856, and early in his career was a prolific Orientalist painter.
Gérôme’s The Grain Threshers, Egypt (1859) shows the traditional means of threshing grain, still used extensively at that time.
His Dance of the Almeh (The Belly-Dancer) from 1863 is a more conventional Orientalist scene. Today this may seem trite, but at the time very few images were made of such places, and some showed locations which had hardly been visited by Europeans.
Gérôme’s The Carpet Merchant (of Cairo) (1887) is one of the best of these. It gives the carpets a grandeur from their display in very everyday surrounds. There’s also a touch of mystery in the white-robed figure shown in the deep shadow of a doorway just to the right of the centre.
Like Gérôme, Eugen Bracht made copious sketches and studies during his visit to Egypt, Syria and Palestine in 1880-81, and when he returned to his studio he turned them into finished oil paintings.
Although painted when back in Berlin, Bracht’s Memory of Gizeh (1883) captures the scene and its rich colours perfectly.
Best known for his Naturalist paintings of rural Denmark, Hans Andersen Brendekilde travelled across Europe, Egypt, Syria and Palestine in 1889-90, where he painted this unusual view of The Graves of the Apostles Jacob and Zacharias near Cairo (1889-91). These appear to be in a cemetery on a hill above the city, and the Pyramids can be seen on the skyline.
Brendekilde’s Oriental Scene with the Pyramids of Giza in the Background, probably from about 1890, shows one of the most famous sites just outside the city of Cairo.
My last visiting artist travelled from even further: when the Australian Impressionist Arthur Streeton moved from Sydney, Australia, to London in 1897, he took the opportunity to visit Cairo and Naples en route.
Streeton’s oil sketch of a Cairo Street (Mosque, Sultan Hassan) (1897) captures the scene in the dazzle of sunlight.
From there we must return to the gathering gloom of the winter. I hope it was fun while it lasted.