Ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbec

Ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbec by David Roberts, RA 1796-1864. Signed and dated 1861. Oil on canvas, 59 x 94 1/2 inches (150 x 240cm). Exhibited: London, Royal Academy 1861 (108).

David Roberts was one of the first artists to embark upon an independent journey to the Middle East in the 19th century. Having started his career as a painter of theatrical scenery, panoramas and dioramas, he exhibited for the first time with the Society of British Artists in 1824. In 1830, encouraged by the success of his exhibits at the Royal Academy, he became a full-time artist and left the theatre, returning only to design scenery for several of Charles Dickens' productions. In 1832, he spent nearly a year in Spain, also visiting Tangiers and Tetuan. He sailed for Egypt in 1838, where he spent several months sketching, writing letters and diaries, and exploring the ancient temples and tombs of Upper Egypt and Nubia.

By the time Roberts went there in 1839, Baalbec was becoming a more common destination for those tourists brave enough to risk the journey through the troubled surrounding countryside. However, Roberts saw himself as following in the tradition of the earlier explorers... [He] arrived at Baalbec and set up camp on 2 May 1839, but unfavourable weather conditions the rain drenched him and his bedding and brought on a fever caused him to seek refuge in a nearby Greek monastery. He was, however, greatly revived by the splendour of the ruins and the richness of their ornament. He spent the next few days making a number of studies of the three temples [at Baalbec] from various angles, many of which were later used as the basis for oil paintings and lithographs (Orientalists, p. 224). The view of the Temple of Bacchus Roberts painted was also used in Gustav Bauernfeind's famous oil in the Neue Pinakotek, Munich. The debris of these temples deeply inspired Roberts, who celebrated the magnificent decadence of the Hellenistic monument in numerous sketches and drawings. As Roberts himself comments in his diary entry for 4 May 1839: Have begun my studies of the temple, of the magnificence of which it is impossible to convey any idea, either by pencil or by pen. The beauty of its form, the exquisite richness of its ornament, and the vast magnitude of its dimensions are altogether unparalleled. [Ballantine, p.138]

Ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbec, exhibited under that title at the Royal Academy in 1861, appears to be the last of eighteen oil paintings by Roberts of the temples at Baalbec spanning almost the whole period after his return from the Near East. Two others are also views of the western side of the Temple of Bacchus, with its portico of columns of which only three remain complete. One, on panel, possibly from the 1840s, shows a close up view of the temple with the fallen columns and architrave of the portico in the foreground (Anon. sale, Sotheby's, 9 July 1980, lot 72 exhibited London, Leighton House, Romantic Lebanon 1986, no. 59). The other, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850, shows a slightly more distant view with the arrival of a party of travellers (see David Roberts, no. 179, pl. 69). Confusion has arisen because both these paintings have been identified as the eastern portico of the temple, probably due to the incorrect title on the lithograph that shows this side of the temple, published as pl. 83, vol. II of Robert's Holy Land, 1843, and entitled Ruins of the Eastern Portico of the Temple of Baalbec.

James Ballantine's The Life of David Roberts RA, p.209, reproduces a sketch of the present work from Roberts' Record Book. With the sketch, in Roberts's own hand, is the inscription "The Temple of the Sun at Baalbec, Syria." The painting was completed in three weeks and bought by Duncan Dunbar for 700, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861. The impressive price reflects the high regard in which Roberts's work was held. That year Roberts had written to his son-in-law, Henry Bicknell "Baalbec -- will he a grand finale -- and take me back to The Lebanon, and Syria -- ..." (26 March 1861). Roberts' diary entry for 30 May 1861 reads: "Dined with me to-day Duncan Dunbar ...James Ballantine ... and Henry BicknelF (Ballantine. p.210).

Another early owner of the present work, Henry Milnes Rait, was married to Roberts's grand-daughter Christine Bicknell.

Roberts' adventurous tour, which lasted eleven months, was fully recorded in hundreds of sketches which were used as a basis for his lithographs, published between 1842 and 1849 in six volumes entitled The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia. These albums made his fortune and were the most extensive records of the Holy Land and Egypt to be presented to the British public. From 1841, when he was elected Royal Academician, Roberts was celebrated as one of the most prominent topographical painters of his time, continuing to paint near Eastern views until the end of his career. [Fine Art Society catalogue]

Provenance: Duncan Dunbar; Henry Milnes Rait; J. Taylor.

References

Ballantine, J. The Life of David Roberts, RA. Edinburgh, 1866.

David Roberts. Exhibition Catalogue. London: Barbican Art Gallery 1986.

The Orientalists, Delacroix to Matisse. Exhibition Catalogue. London: Royal Academy, 1984.

Spring '99. London: The Fine Art Society, 1999. No. 6.

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Last modified 29 December 2004