Israel in Eygpt

Israel in Egypt by Sir Edward John Poynter Bt PRA RWS (1839-1919). 1867. Oil on canvas, 54 x 125 inches. Private Collection.

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Poynter's Israel in Egypt depicts dozens of Israelite slaves pulling a sculpture of a lion, fashioned from red granite, across the foreground while an Egyptian overseer lashes his whip across their backs. The painting is a graphic depiction of Exodus I:7-11, which reads:

But the descendants of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them . . . Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens; and they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Ram'ses (Exodus I: 7-11)

On the right hand side of the canvas, slightly set back from the foreground, one can make out another identical granite lion being dragged through a high gateway, and in the far background, an entire array of nearly complete granite lions appears. Returning to the foreground, one sees a small royal entourage following the central granite lion. An Egyptian princess in the procession carries a baby boy — the infant Moses, who will lead the Isrtaelites out of such slavery — who in turn carries his own miniature-sized whip. Poynter chooses to situate this scene in a magnificently detailed, albeit dishonest architectural landscape. Although the passage from Exodus to which he refers specifically mentions the cities of Pithom and Ram'ses, Poynter opts for an eclectic selection of Egyptian architecture that extends way beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries of these two cities. The four black granite figures pictured near the gateway are modeled after those in the British Museum of Amenhotep III from Thebes, whereas the red granite lions appear to be modeled after another museum piece that was displayed in the Egyptian Court at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1854. Poynter's backdrop also includes the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Temple from Philae, the Obelisk from Heliopolis, and finally, the Pylon Gateway from Edfu. This selection spans millennia, not to mention the physical distance between all of these structures, and yet here they appear within walking distance of one another.

Poynter became interested in Oriental themes very early in his career, and Israel in Egypt can be considered his first major success. The piece took him three years to complete, and in 1867, it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. A civil engineer named Sir John Hawkshaw purchased the work but complained to Poynter that the painting was unrealistic. In reality, Hawkshaw argued, more Israelite slaves would be required to move a granite sculpture of such magnitude. In an effort to add realism and authenticity to the work, and likely to appease the client, Poynter added more slaves to the procession, painting them all the way to the right-hand edge of the canvas.

Although Israel in Egypt was a huge success at its exhibition in 1867 and has come to be known as one of Poynter's masterworks, it did encounter its fair share of criticism. Some disapproved of the artist's apparent disregard for archaeological accuracy, while others found the subject matter inappropriate and unappealing. A reviewer from The Art Journal wrote, "the painter labours under the disadvantage of having chosen a disagreeable, not to say revolting subject." While this critique is understandable, there may be more to Poynter's work than a grisly portrayal of slavery in ancient Egypt. Amid the horror of the scene, there is an oddly human moment taking place in the very foreground of the painting where an Egyptian is seen giving water and aid to a fallen slave. This sliver of humanity sharply contrasts with the whip-toting Egyptian taskmaster in the immediate background.

Criticisms aside, Poynter's mastery of the male form is quite apparent in this work (which, with the exception of the princess, exclusively features men). In Israel in Egypt, Poynter experiments with the male body under different types of physical strain — pushing, pulling, etc., and in his next major work, The Catapult, completed just one year later in 1868, he refines his ability to capture the male form at the peak of physical exertion.

Discussion questions

1. Poynter, the son of an architect, pays very close attention to detail in his representation of Egyptian architecture. That is to say, he wants to present these buildings truthfully — and yet he so casually disregards the historical and archaeological facts behind them. What is his aim in doing so, and is it effective?

2. Does the complexity of the architectural backdrop distract the viewer from the focus of the painting — the exploitation of Israelite slaves — or does it provide the necessary context?

2. What do we mean when we say that this painting comes out of an Orientalist tradition or an Orientalist discourse? What is Poynter's goal in Israel in Egypt, and do you think he is successful?

Related Material

References

Poynter's Israel in Egypt (1867). Guildhall Library, City of London online collection, COLLAGE record number 11077. Viewed 6 February 2007.

Maas, Jeremy. Victorian Painters. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.

Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters. London: Constable, 1983.


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Last modified 6 February 2007