Throughout its long history Egypt has a reputation for always posing a temptation for invaders. Less known but much more fascinating, however, is its attraction for artists. European painters have depicted Egypt since the beginning of the 19th century, each with a different vision and impression.
The great attention these artists paid to light in their work, and their choice of bright colours, may be attributed to the constant sway of Egypt’s sunlight. Many would add strong spots of light to their paintings, using yellow and red for walls, buildings and the sky. Hot colours were the most commonly used, reflecting exceptional warmth.
Most of the paintings were panoramic, with the artists expressing everything in depth and showing so mach detail that any observer can almost feel him or herself part of the work. Palms and trees showed in the background of most of the paintings.
The typical man in the street was the main character in many of the works, and so were Egyptian women performing their everyday tasks. However it was the Nubians with their particular physical traits who were the most frequently depicted, often pursuing their favourite hobbies such as falcon hunting.
The French school
The artists who came to Egypt during the French invasion were those who most successfully expressed the charm of the country. Their school, as reported by Gustave Courbet, held that painting should picture the truth and common objects and events. It soon attracted the attention of the world, especially in that it was able to compete with other art schools of the 1800s.
Albert Aublet (1851 – 1938) was very fond of historic and religious sites as well as interior décor. His drawings revealed that he was obviously impressed Cairo public baths. Among his most important works were The entrance of a three-door butchery and The imam walks in front of the children. Aublet’s paintings were Munich, Madrid, Berlin, Moscow and Chicago.
Benjamin Constant (1845 – 1902) and Jean Léon Gérome (1824 – 1904) also belonged to the French school. Gérome went on a four-month trip on the Nile, after which he spent four months in Cairo, and was known for his depiction of the Arab horse.
The most famous artist of this school was Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863), who is considered the leader of the romantic movement. During a short trip to the Middle East he painted one of most important works A Mamluk seated on a horse
The British also created their own school. Charles Robertson (1844 – 1891) was very impressed by the Middle East. His works were rich in colour and detail, among them The shoes of the faithful.
Frank Dillon (1833 – 1909) came to Egypt in 1858, and was taken with nature and the vast open spaces. His main concern was to rebuild the fallen parts of monuments, and he stood against the building of the first Aswan dam because it would drown the island of Philae. Columns of Memnon and The Sphinx at midnight were among his most famous works.
Carl Haag was among the most important artists of the German school. He came to Cairo in 1858 and rented a house in the Coptic district with his friend Frederic Goodall, where they used to receive artists and tourists. He sketched members of desert tribes and painted his unique Danger in the desert in 1873.
From the Austrian school we recall Ludwig Deutsch (1855 – 1935) and Rudolph Ernst (1854 – 1932). The Italian school had a very limited number of migrant artists, but the most important were Julio Rosetti (1858 – 1917) and Joseibeh Siniorini (1857 – 1932). Siniorini at first specialised in portrait painting and then focused on oriental textiles. Typical is his works A scene from a Cairo market
In the modern era the Russian artist Victor Kopelev dedicated his talent to showing the Russian people, through his work, the beauty and charm of Egypt. In his works he depicted the greatness of the pyramids, the Nile, the Khan al-Khalili with its crowds, as well as Helwan’s blast furnaces and the huge monuments of the past.