Focus on the Collection: Paintings of Egypt

Unlike many anthropology museums, the Hearst Museum preserves a substantial collection of paintings by European and American artists—in addition to the more common works by Native peoples.  This distinctive collection is due to the early interest and support of Phoebe Hearst.  Not only did Hearst collect paintings but she was an active patron of living artists.  Most of the museum’s paintings have a strong relationship to the artifact collections.  For instance, supplementing the thousands of ancient Egyptian artifacts collected by archaeologist George A. Reisner are several important paintings of Egyptian subjects.

One of these Egyptian treasures is a painting by Henry Roderick Newman (1843–1917).  Newman was trained in New York in the detailed watercolor style popularized by English art theorist John Ruskin.  In 1887–88, Newman made his first trip to Egypt, returning almost every winter until his death.

Perhaps Newman’s favorite subject was the ancient temple complex on the island of Philae, in the Nile River of Upper Egypt.  So frequently did Newman paint this site that he was nicknamed “Philae Newman.”  Although some of the site was as old as 350 BCE, most of it dated to Ptolemaic times (282–145 BCE).  In the late 19th century, it became a popular tourist destination, acclaimed for its well-preserved relief paintings.

Henry Roderick Newman, Island of Philae, 1898–99; watercolor/gouache.  HMA 17-201.

Another set of Egyptian watercolors comes from Newman’s student, Joseph Lindon Smith (1863–1950).  After studying in Boston and Paris, Smith met Newman in 1886 at his home in Florence.  In 1898, while visiting his teacher in Egypt--on his first trip to Egypt--Smith met Phoebe Hearst, then on her first trip to the country.  Mrs. Hearst’s dramatic purchase of all the paintings he was working on at Abu Simbel launched Smith on his subsequent career as a famous painter of Egyptian archaeology.  At Abu Simbel--along the Nile near Aswan, in Nubia--were two massive temples cut into the rocks.  These were constructed during the reign of New Kingdom Pharaoh Ramesses II, between 1264 and 1244 BCE.

Joseph Lindon Smith, [Abu Simbel, front view], 1899; watercolor.  HMA 17-363.

Our third Egyptian painter, Carl Oscar Borg (1879–1947), was one of the artists directly supported by Phoebe Hearst.  From 1910 to 1914, Mrs. Hearst sent the Swedish immigrant to Europe to travel and study art.  Borg painted in Egypt between January and April of 1911.  In contrast to the antiquarian interests of Newman and Smith, Borg represented contemporary views of the people and their homes:  mostly around Luxor, the modern city at the ancient site of Thebes.

Carl Oscar Borg, Egyptian Village, Luxor, 1911; oil.  HMA 17-197.

Beyond their appealing aesthetic values, these paintings supply critical documentation.  In fact, the sites of both Philae and Abu Simbel no longer exist as Newman and Smith represented them.  In the face of rising waters behind the Aswan Dam, both temples were relocated to nearby sites (Abu Simbel, 1964–68; Philae, 1977–80).  Although a relatively small collection, these paintings reveal a wide diversity of regions and time periods in Egyptian history.  As Phoebe Hearst intended, they serve as a valuable complement to the Egyptian collections.
Ira Jacknis, Research Anthropologist