An Egyptian Girl with a Sistrum
Oil on panel; signed and dated 1886
27 x 20 inches
In 1874 Long left for an extensive tour of Egypt and Syria, which, combined with visits to the British Museum in London, provided him with the subjects that helped to make him the highest priced living artist in Britain in the early 1880s. The favourable notices of two influential art critics, Spielman and Ruskin, endorsed his work and he was seen as having made a harmonious fusion of art and archaeology. In the first half of the 19th century, archaeological expeditions were swiftly put together in a kind of gold-rush of discovery to the Middle East. The German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was amongst the first to understand that ancient stories such as Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid reflected actual historical events, and these ancient stories came to life as, one after another, buried cities reappeared beneath layers of later civilisations and sand. British archaeologists sent back their finds to the rapidly expanding British Museum - Charles Fellows from Asia Minor (1840), Charles Newton from Halikarnassos (1857), and AH Layard from the sites of ancient Nimrod and Nineveh in Assyria in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The Rosetta Stone, carved with the same message in two known languages (Demotic and Ancient Greek) had at last provided the key to the mysterious third, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, opening up an exciting new world of interpretation.
Artists travelled with the expeditions in pre- and post-photographic days to record the excavations. The painters that followed later as tourists pictured life in the dead ruins and finished their fantasies in their studios at home in London, for the Royal Academy. Territorial of their subjects, they specialised in particular civilisations - Long made a monopoly of Babylon, but often conflated ancient cultures together in his paintings. It may seem to us now that Long took liberties in his inventions by setting his pretty models in Egyptian temples and tombs, clad in revealing Greek robes and ancient Roman jewellery and surrounded by finds. That allowed, Long was a most able painter; his enamelled surfaces and subtle glazes, his subdued lighting and brilliant flashes of colour, and his sculptural figure-drawing breathed life into the ancient world. Underpinned by unverifiable claims of archaeological accuracy, he and other artists opened up a new genre of Neo-Classical painting, and allowed their imaginations free rein. Wildly inaccurate as Cecil B DeMille movies, the public nonetheless devoured the evocative imagery.
This pair of paintings, excellent and fluid examples of Long at the peak of his abilities, survive in their original frames.