The Lure of Egypt

19th Century Orientalism paintings have seldom caught my eyes. There is a great painting of Cario streets by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the Brooklyn Museum. Several other painters, such as Samuel Coleman and Frederich Edwin Church, have visited Egypt or near East. But American painters tended to treat the subject as an alternative choice of landscape with some exotic settings. In the current exhibition “In Pursuit of the Exotic: Artists Abroad in 19th Century Egypt and the Holy Land” at Lubin House, the archeological and architectural merits of Egypt play an important role in the paintings by European artists like Charles Théodore Frère.

Louis Haghe after David Roberts, Dayr el Medeeneh, Thebes, from The Holy Land: Egypt and Nubia, 1846-50
Louis Haghe after David Roberts, Dayr el Medeeneh, Thebes, from The Holy Land: Egypt and Nubia, 1846-50

It must be wonderful to be a 19th century artist exploring the archeological sites before the amateur and professional treasure hunters made their permanent marks. Archeological study , as  Gay Robins, in her book “Women in Ancient Egypt” says,  is “essentially a destructive pursuit”. Thus whatever has been excavated and peeled off before would be impossible to be restored. Furthermore, the vivid colors on the reliefs or paintings, which had survived for two or three millenniums, could not fight  against the touch of human hands. Thus the lithograph pictures from the watercolor rendering by David Roberts show the marvelous temples with authenticity in their “pristine” conditions.

Trajans Kiosk at Philae (New site after the construction of Aswan Dam)
Trajan’s Kiosk at Philae (New site after the construction of Aswan Dam) from Wiki Commons

I was attracted by a pair of pictures of the same subject: the Kiosk of Trajan at Philae. One is a  heliogravure picture printed and published by Cosmos. The other is an oil painting by Hermann David Salomon Corrodi. The contract between the austere temple and the barren land near the first cataract must be the reason that has attacted so many visitors. The campfire in the image is echoed by the burning sky, not only revealing the precise location of the viewer’s position, but also giving a romantic Victorian taste of Egypt: boat, river, palm trees and colonnades, with Arabians dressing in native attires and garbs.

Charles Théodore Frère, Along the Nile at Gyzeh
Charles Théodore Frère, Along the Nile at Gyzeh

My favorite painting in the exhibition is “Along the Nile at Gyzeh” by Charles Théodore Frère. The reflection of pyramids on the Nile river make the picture exotic for modern viewers who are used to link pyramids with deserts and camels. The light from the early stage of the sunset suffuses the background with a golden touch. The pyramids are simplified into geometric shapes, yet still dominating the background landscape by breaking the horizon and river banks. I love how he broke the exact symmetry of the reflection by arranging a riverbank lined with ibis in the middle of the reflection.

The near ground was treated much darker, but with details in water buffalo and palm trees. The lack of colors in the upswing trees helps to diminish the dominant psychological feels of the bright pyramids as if nothing exotic or wonders could bend Frère’s mind of harmony and idyllism. In contract, in the last year’s exhibition at Montclair Museum of Art, Philip Pearlstein used the wide angle to exaggerate the proportion of the sphinx. To some extent, His peculiar depiction of the stone sculpture by diminishing the Great Pyramid is no different from his choice of cropped, twisted human body.

The Great Sphinx, Giza by Philip Pearlstein 1979
The Great Sphinx, Giza by Philip Pearlstein 1979

In Pursuit of the Exotic: Artists Abroad in 19th Century Egypt and the Holy Land is on view at Lubin House of the Syracuse University Art Galleries till the end of April. The Museum has limited hours, Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.

A good book to read about the subject: American Orientalists by Gerald M. Ackerma published by Art Creation Realisation in 1994.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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