Western artists in the nineteenth century were enthralled with the land and the artefacts of Ancient Egypt. Egypt was an exotic land completely different from Europe. The colours, the heat and the people all exerted a strange fascination.
The boom in Ancient Egypt style art of the Nineteenth Century was an indirect result of Napoleon’s foray at the start of the century. The publication of the Description of Egypt and the display of ancient artefacts in Western Europe enticed a public eager for more.
This is sometimes called the Year Zero of Egyptology, yet Egypt exerted a fascination before this. The Bible was a main source of inspiration. The tale of Joseph was a mine of all sorts of details: oriental luxury, sexuality and despotism. Before the Eighteenth Century however, many paintings portrayed Egypt with classical overtones. Tiepolo’s Joseph receiving Pharaoh’s Ring shows elements of contemporary Venetian dress and classical architecture. Classical themes were common in art history and ancient Egyptian themes merely broadened this repertoire.
Contemporary Egypt in Nineteenth Century Art
Egypt was the scene of many artistic landscapes. The river Nile and the pyramids, framed by palm trees and foregrounded by fauna were popular. The art shows some derivation. The Sphinx caught in a sandstorm backlight by a red sun was painted by Johann Jakob, Ippolito and Goodall.
Temple ruins were popular subjects as well. Jacob Jacobs, the Belgian artist, painted the same scene in Karnak twice within a decade.
The paintings of the ruins drew on earlier traditions of Classical Greek and Roman archaeological landscapes but added something new. This was an exoticising and orientalist view which depicted in Egyptians in particular ways.
The temple scenes also had something of the moral about them. This great empire had fallen and perhaps other great empires will one day fall. In 1882 Britain intervened in Egyptian affairs during the Anglo-Egyptian war.
In the word’s of Shelley’s traveller:
Egyptianising art in the Nineteenth Century
Egyptianising means using themes, images and motifs of ancient Egypt in art. Scenes from ancient Egypt were popular during this time. Some portrayed general scenes of every day life, whereas other drew on historical imagery.
Scenes from the bible were popular: Joseph, Moses and the flight of the holy family all provided popular motifs. The Scottish painter David Roberts depicted the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The architecture is on a much larger scale than in reality. In the background several pyramids loom, pyramids which Jewish slaves may have built. All this luxury is as nothing to the nation prepared to set forth.
The best of these egyptianising artists is Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the dutch born and London based artist of ancient scenes. A certain level of the naff hangs over his art but he avoids some of the excesses of other artists. His paintings possess a psychological level complementing the ancient scenes they are portrayed in. There is something of the uncanny and unspoken about his work, a deep foreboding not in keeping with the superficial brilliances of the settings.
The Death of the Pharoah’s Firstborn Son shows a similar moment to the exodus story as Roberts, but here the focus is on one man. Pharaoh gazes far out of the painting, a face caught between grief and anger.His mouth almost quivering. The colour is muted and only a few Egyptian details are picked out: funerary icons and furniture. Oriental despotism is suggested by the crowds of mourners at the edges of the canvas. This is a domestic scene of grief whose denouement will be the liberation of the Jews and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in the waters of the Red Sea.
Animal gods in Nineteenth Century Art
The worship of animals fascinated the Classical Greek writes. Herodotus writes how a household would mourn the death of a cat. Diodorus Siculus writes how a Roman was lynched by a crowd of Egyptians during a particular fraught period for killing a cat. For the next few hundred years, Roman dignitaries would visit animal enclosures such as Sobek’s in the Fayum.
Animal worship also fascinated nineteenth century artists. Several paintings portray priests feeding the holy animals. There is something at once alluring and disapproving of such paintings. The semi-dressed young ladies in soft focus do not obscure the fact that these people are worshipping false gods.
Poynter’s Adoration to Ra is a good example of this art. A richly dressed young man with a leopard skin cloak stands in an Egyptian pose before a golden falcon. Behind him a topless young lady adores another statue. The scene is replicated, with the exact same pose, on the wall in Ancient Egyptian style. Incense wafts heavenwards. Egypt is imagined as a superstitious land, luxurious and laviscious.
Behind this the Bible throbs deep. Bridgman’s Procession of the sacred Bull Apis is another exotic painting. Pharaoh and his queen process the bull Apis. Behind them a priest carries a staff with a golden calf on it, a clear reference to Exodus, more priests carry a boat. Is this a reference to the floods (both Nile and in the Red Sea)? The interior is luxurious. The bull at the centre of the procession has a nonplussed yet noble mien. The focus of the painting is the pharaoh’s queen. She looks straight at the audience with eyes, sorrowful and knowing. This is a doom laden painting.
Ancient Egyptians in Nineteenth Century art
Egyptians are portrayed variously in ways which reveal the racial anxiety of the Nineteenth Century.
The most obvious sign of this is the sexualised images of Egyptian woman. They are portrayed in various stages of undress at inappropriate moments. In The Gods and their Makers Edwin Long has imagined a workshop where the female artisans do their ceramics work topless. Around the room accurate representations of ancient Egyptian artefacts create a sense of realism. Edwin Long studied artefacts at the British Museum and travelled to Egypt and Syria in 1874. Several of his works draw on religious themes. The scene of the idol makers is both alluring and moralistic.
It is hard to miss the fact that many of these Egyptian females are white. A popular subject was the discovery of the baby Moses among the reeds by Pharaoh’s daughter. Several artists portrayed her naked (as befitting a woman bathing). Frederick Goodall’s The Finding of Moses is a good example of this. Pharaoh’s daughter is served by darker skinned serving maids. She gazes on Moses with an inscrutable haughty face. In this one painting Goodall draws several of the tropes of Egyptian art together: Egyptian fauna, temple architecture, artefacts and sculptures, sacred animals, despotism, sexuality and biblical themes.
Cleopatra and nineteenth century art
Of all the scenes most commonly portrayed in an overtly sexualised manner, the death of Cleopatra is the most obvious.
Several nineteenth century artists portrayed this scene. Again she is shown topless and white skinned. In Rixens’ The Death of Cleopatra she lies dead and pale. Her body is splayed on a bed. One maid lies dead at her feet, another looks anxiously to stage left a door being kicked in. This is an image inspired by Shakespeare. The surviving maid Charmian.
It is well done, and fitting for a Princesse
Descended of so many Royall Kings.
The scene is luxurious and Egyptian. Even the colours, dark and rich, create a suffocating mood.
Other paintings by Prinsep and Bohn continue this trend of a white, naked Cleopatra. A temptress brought low but with the dignity of a queen in her death. As a pre-Christian figure Cleopatra was maybe a safe subject for examine complex and ambitious themes of female autonomy, power and despotism, or perhaps a subject for male artists to leer over for her open sexuality.
Cleopatra continued to be an alluring figure into the twentieth century and on to today. It is important to remember that many of the visual attributes we associate with her, and Ancient Egypt more widely, were developed in the Victorian period: a period of high imperialism, repressed sexuality and some would say bad art.
Hopefully this short piece has shown that the Ancient Egyptian themed art of the Nineteenth Century is complex, intriguing and worthy of investigation.