Painting Antiquity: visions of Egypt

Three Victorian artists – Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Poynter, and Edwin Long – helped to shape our image of the distant past. Stephanie Moser describes how their passion for archaeology and love of domestic objects produced a wealth of detailed, descriptive paintings.


For millennia, artists have enjoyed a love affair with the ancient past. In Classical Greece, they found creative inspiration in the Bronze Age civilisation of the Mycenaeans. In the time of the Roman Empire, they looked back with reverence to Greece. Rome itself became a source of fascination to artists of the early Italian Renaissance, who themselves offered a guiding light to the Pre-Raphaelite movement of the mid 19th century. No group, however, has shown greater ‘reverence for the antique’ – as The Art Journal put it in 1871, when announcing its formation – than the school now widely referred to as the Victorian Classical Revival. As evidenced by the exhibition of hundreds of paintings featuring scenes from antiquity, this small group had by the 1880s grown into a flourishing artistic tradition. 

Pastimes in Ancient Egypt 3,000 Years Ago, 1863, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Oil on canvas. Image: Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.

Inspired by archaeological discoveries, displays of antiquities, and archaeological publications, Classical Revival painting was closely connected to the exhibition of Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artefacts in the British Museum. With their detailed renderings of ancient objects and architecture, this group of prominent Victorian artists produced highly evocative images of life in antiquity. Primarily based in London, where many of them created renowned studio homes and frequently socialised together, this community of artists included Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893), George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), Frederick Goodall (1822-1904), Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Edward Poynter (1836-1919), Edwin Long (1829-1891), Edward Armitage (1817-1896) and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917). With the exception of Alma-Tadema, who was born in the Netherlands and moved to London in 1870, these artists were all British, but most had travelled and trained in Italy, France, and beyond. Leighton was considered the pioneer or major proponent of the movement and had an influential role in inspiring artists such as Edward Poynter to pursue a career in Classical Revival painting.

The Mummy in the Roman Period, 1867, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Oil on canvas. IMAGE: courtesy of Neil Morris.

Within the group, Alma-Tadema, Poynter, and Long were distinguished by their passion for incorporating archaeological detail in their pictures. Although they shared the wider interest of the Classical Revival school in pursuing a different evocation of antiquity by moving away from the depiction of drama, action, and epic events, these three artists enlisted archaeological details in order to convey the intimate contexts of daily life. They also shared an interest in reconstructing ancient Egyptian scenes, and in a body of about 60 such pictures they promoted an ‘archaeological school’ of painting. My own recent study of their Egyptian-themed paintings – Painting Antiquity: ancient Egypt in the art of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Poynter and Edwin Long – demonstrates how their work attracted great interest from audiences hungry for a glimpse into the rituals of life in antiquity. It shows, too, how their pictures generated influential new visions of ancient Egypt.

An Egyptian Widow at the Time of Diocletian, 1872, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Oil on panel. IMAGE: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Described by many as the ‘archaeological painter’ of the Victorian art world, Lawrence Alma-Tadema was born in Friesland in the Netherlands, an area rich in archaeological sites. He trained in Antwerp, soon becoming recognised for his prowess in depicting the material world of antiquity. In 1864, he travelled to Italy and was greatly inspired by the archaeological sites and collections he saw there. Although comparatively small in number compared to his Roman pictures, Alma-Tadema’s Egyptian works are among his most significant and impactful. The first major Egyptian picture he exhibited in Britain was Pastimes in Ancient Egypt (1863), which was received as a ground-breaking ‘archaeological picture’ and won him international acclaim. Featuring a lively scene in which dancers entertain a captivated audience, the painting is rich in archaeological references. The meticulously rendered domestic antiquities, which Alma-Tadema had seen and sketched in museums and copied from books, brought ancient Egypt to life. Recognising the appeal of such visions, he went on to create a series of equally engaging Egyptian pictures in the 1860s – including Egyptian Chess Players (1865), An Egyptian at His Doorway in Memphis (1866) and The Mummy in the Roman Period (1867). Together with his Roman pictures, this series of works led the Athenaeum to announce in 1866 that he had created a new type of ‘archaeological’ painting, which ‘profited from modern researches of this nature’. By 1870, the Saturday Review had declared him ‘a professed archaeologist’.

Watercolour drawings of Egyptian columns and decorative motifs, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. IMAGE: Portfolios E1263-67, Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham.

The following decade saw the exhibition of an important series of Egyptian paintings by Alma-Tadema, including Egyptian Widow (1872), Death of the Firstborn (1872), Joseph, Overseer of Pharaoh’s Granaries (1874) and two versions of Cleopatra (1875, 1877). Egyptian Widow, in which a grieving widow crouches by the side of the coffin of her deceased husband, attracted much commentary at the time. It demonstrates how Alma-Tadema used a multitude of archaeological elements to create a highly detailed, almost tangible, interior space in which every surface was covered in rich decoration. The artist consulted a vast array of sources to inform the scene, including sculptures, architectural features, wall paintings, mummy cases, sarcophagi, papyri, funerary objects, and domestic items. A substantial number of these were on display in the British Museum, such as the coffin, mummy, and canopic jars. Designs on the columns have also been copied from artefacts in the museum, and other elements of the picture suggest that Alma-Tadema was influenced by the Egyptian Court exhibit at the Crystal Palace in London. This combination of such a richly delineated setting with the compelling subject of a grieving widow results in a highly atmospheric and affecting scene.

Drawings of ancient-Egyptian furniture by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. IMAGE: Portfolios E1280-97, Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, University of Birmingham.

Also painted in 1872, but exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year, Death of the Firstborn is widely thought to be one of Alma-Tadema’s most powerful and poignant works. Gripped by sorrow, Pharaoh holds his deceased child in his lap while the grief-stricken mother leans over the boy, clasping his ashen hand. Sitting on the other side of Pharaoh is the despondent physician who has failed to save the child. With heads bowed and hands raised, a group of grieving figures surrounds this central group, including one in the middle distance who lies prostrate on the ground. Musicians perform in the background, and on the far-right Moses and Aaron can be seen entering the scene of mourning. Small lamps illuminate the dark and moody scene, which feels oppressive and intensely private. Notable among a wealth of archaeological references in the painting are a wooden stool and jar-stand. An ‘archaeological composite’, the stool combines the distinctive decoration of a jar-stand in the British Museum with the design of a white painted stool in the same collection. The small stand on which the wreath of lotus flowers and alabaster vessels are placed appears in Alma-Tadema’s sketches, copied from the landmark book Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians by John Gardner Wilkinson, which came out in 1837. Of all his pictures, Death of the Firstborn was particularly important to the artist. He bought it back from his dealer, Ernest Gambart, and displayed it in a prominent position in his homes, later bequeathing it (along with Egyptian Widow) to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Death of the Firstborn, 1872, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Oil on canvas. IMAGES: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Other major Egyptian works exhibited by Alma-Tadema include The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra (1883) and The Finding of Moses (1904) – the latter created following his first visit to Egypt in 1902, where he took part in the opening of the Aswan Low Dam at the invitation of Sir John Aird. Together with his other Egyptian subjects, these pictures highlighted the rich use of colour, profusion of decorative motifs and vivid representation of daily life in ancient Egyptian art. They also championed the mastery of skill in the manufacture of domestic objects and items of personal adornment. When Alma-Tadema died in 1912, he was working on another major Egyptian work entitled Cleopatra at the Temple of Isis at Philae, which is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Adoration to Ra, 1867, by Edward Poynter. Oil on canvas IMAGE: courtesy of Sotheby’s, New York.

Archaeologists as well as artists

Born in Paris in the same year as Alma-Tadema, Edward Poynter was the son of British parents who soon returned to London, where he undertook his early artistic training. In 1853, when he was 17, he went to Rome, where he met and was greatly inspired by Frederic Leighton, who was six years his senior. Returning to London the following year, Poynter continued his training, spending much time sketching antiquities in the British Museum, before departing for Paris in 1856, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts for three years. In addition to his successful career as a Classical Revivalist painter, Poynter played a leading role in art education and administration, serving as the Director of the National Gallery and President of the Royal Academy. Like those of Alma-Tadema, Poynter’s Egyptian works played a crucial role in his career. The first Egyptian paintings he exhibited were vivid scenarios rich in archaeological detail – Offering to Isis (1866), The Snake Charmer (1866) and Adoration to Ra (1867). Prior to this, in 1863-1864, he had produced a series of drawings for an illustrated bible in which ancient Egyptian domestic interiors were meticulously reconstructed. Published in Dalziel’s Bible Gallery in 1881, these illustrations drew attention to the richly decorated items with which ancient Egyptian artisans would adorn their surroundings. Exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in London in 1867, Adoration to Ra makes use of many objects Poynter saw in the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum. Notable are the stands in the foreground: the two at the front combine features of the distinctive decorated jar-stand in the museum, and the one with curved legs is based on another stand in the collection. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year was Poynter’s most-famous Egyptian picture – Israel in Egypt (1867). This epic vista depicting the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt has as its centrepiece a majestic recumbent lion sculpture based on one of a pair in the British Museum. The great beast engages the viewer with its omnipotent gaze, while the slaves almost collapse under its weight. Travelling in comfort behind the heaving trolley is the royal entourage, with soldiers, priests, and musicians leading the procession. Serving as the background for this impressive parade is a panoramic view of some the major monuments in the Egyptian landscape. The emphasis on archaeological detail in every aspect of the scene ensured that it had a great influence on the perception of ancient Egypt. Despite its enormous impact, however, Poynter moved away from producing Egyptian scenes, and in 1871 exhibited his last Egyptian picture, Feeding the Sacred Ibis in the Halls of Karnak. A riot of colour and ornament, this was engraved in 1874 by The Art Journal, which declared that ‘we have now among us many who may be called archaeologists as well as artists, for their researches after novelty of subject carry them into ages long since passed away’. Like Alma-Tadema, Poynter was appreciated for his expertise in depicting the material world of the ancients.

Preparatory sketch for Israel in Egypt, c.1867, by Edward Poynter. IMAGE: British Museum.

Edwin Long also trained in London, exhibiting his first pictures at the Royal Academy in 1855. In 1857, he travelled to Spain where he became fascinated by the ‘manners and customs’, history and religion of the people, embarking on a successful career as a painter of historic genre scenes. He turned to Egyptian subjects after travelling to Egypt in 1874, and although he made his mark as an archaeological genre painter with Babylonian Marriage Market in 1875, his ‘Egyptian phase’ was launched with the equally ambitious Egyptian Feast of 1877.Here a vast gathering of people and a stunning array of antiquities are arranged together in a highly detailed scene. The subject is taken from Herodotus, who described the ancient Egyptian custom of reminding the living of the dead by parading a mummy before the guests at the end of a banquet. Occupying a central position in the picture is an elderly couple – the woman clutching her hands to her chest as the bier is dragged before her. Much of the archaeological detail is from the Egyptian collection in the British Museum – including the dark granite statue on the raised podium; the sculpture of the couple on the right wall; the inlaid stool, jar-stand, and three-legged table; the ball on the floor; and the wall paintings of Nebamun. Other items, such as the harps and the vases in the background, are taken from Egyptological texts by Wilkinson and others. Following the enthusiastic reception of Egyptian Feast, Long continued to exhibit Egyptian subjects up to his death in 1891 – including The Gods and Their Makers (1878), Anno Domini, or the Flight into Egypt (1883), Love’s Labour Lost (1885), Pharaoh’s Daughter (1886), Sacred to Pasht (1886), The Crown of Justification (1886), and Alethe (1888). In addition, he produced a series of paintings of ancient Egyptian female figures for commercial sale, in which items of personal adornment and background details were copied from archaeological materials. For Long, ancient Egypt was the perfect ‘aesthetic site’ for combining the novelty of archaeological detail, an interest in biblical themes and ancient pagan customs, and an erotic evocation of the East.

An Egyptian Feast, 1877, by Edwin Long. Oil on canvas. IMAGE: courtesy of Sotheby’s London.

A key source of inspiration for the new style of archaeological art championed by Alma-Tadema, Poynter, and Long were the major discoveries, excavations, and public exhibitions on archaeology that received detailed coverage at the time in the British press. Like many others, these artists were captivated by the displays of household objects in museums, where the domestic wares of the ancients offered a compelling glimpse into their everyday lives. The Egyptian pictures of Alma-Tadema, Poynter, and Long drew particularly on the antiquities exhibited in the British Museum’s ‘Mummy rooms’, which opened in the late 1830s. From these galleries, the artists selected numerous utilitarian items with which to animate their vivid scenarios of daily life. With its hundreds of illustrations of all manner of everyday objects, Wilkinson’s book was also a critical source for these artists and many other historicist painters. Numerous sketches in Alma-Tadema’s portfolios were directly copied and traced from Wilkinson. Also influential was the Crystal Palace’s Egyptian Court, which opened in Sydenham, London, in 1854. With its impressive entrance of recumbent lions leading into a series of colourful and richly decorated rooms, the installation made a strong impression on artists. In addition, Alma-Tadema, Poynter, and Long developed their own working methods to facilitate their engagement with archaeology. Alma-Tadema created a unique archaeological archive containing thousands of photographs and drawings of sites and artefacts, and he built up an impressive archaeological library and collection of antiquities. Another part of his armoury was a collection of ancient Egyptian reproduction furniture based on British Museum prototypes. While Poynter sketched antiquities and had a collection of photographs featuring ancient sites, his main preparation for his artworks was figure-drawing. Very few of Long’s studies for his paintings survive, but an illustration in The Graphic of 1888 shows him assembling small models to assist in the composition of The Crown of Justification.

A Votary of Isis, 1883, by Edwin Long. Oil on canvas. IMAGE: Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford.

Although the three artists’ Egyptian pictures received mixed reviews from the art critics of the day, they were enormously popular with the viewing public. Wealthy industrialists in Britain and North America were major purchasers of their art, and many others acquired prints of their paintings. Despite, or perhaps because of, their popularity, critics became intolerant of the meticulous reconstruction of antiquities in the archaeological style of painting, and by the end of the century the once-popular movement died out. In more recent years, there has been a revival of interest in the work of Alma-Tadema, Poynter, and Long, who are now recognised for their intense engagement with the material dimensions and everyday rituals of the ancient world.

The Egyptian pictures of Alma-Tadema, Poynter, and Long played a significant role in forming understandings of the world they portrayed. In their images, ancient Egypt was conceptualised in a manner that was less formal than that of museum displays, publications, and other artworks. The scenes they painted reflected a growing interest in the ‘manners and customs’ of ancient ancestors, injecting emotion into a culture that was often depicted as cold, cruel, and strange. Ultimately, the profusion of archaeological references in these Egyptian pictures brought about a wider appreciation of the significance of ancient domestic and utilitarian objects. Rather than relegating such objects to the background, these artists gave them a starring role, encouraging audiences to see the beauty of the ‘ordinary things’ used in all aspects of life. In their scenes of ancient Egyptians at work, at play, and engaged in daily rituals, we see a move away from the grandeur and romanticism of Classical monuments and sculpture to more intimate scenes in which a sense of private life was captured. The paintings can be seen as a type of visual social history that was strongly informed by the material record. A consequence of this was that they challenged the designation of archaeology as mere ‘accessory’ in history painting, illustrating how ancient material culture could be used in imaginative ways to create new aesthetic effects and understandings of the past. The focus on the material world of ancient Egypt in Alma-Tadema, Poynter, and Long’s art did not simply result from a desire to add to the veracity of their scenes. Rather, these artists featured a plethora of highly realistic depictions of antiquities as a means of capturing the spirit and beauty of life.

Further reading: Stephanie Moser’s book, Painting Antiquity: ancient Egypt in the art of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Poynter and Edwin Long is published by Oxford University Press (ISBN 978-0190697020).