On the Nile. 1878. Oil on canvas, 105/8 x 163/8 inches (26.9 x 41.5 cm). Collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, accession no. PD.5 -1979.. Click on image to enlarge it

Christopher Newall argues that Leighton’s landscape sketches are amongst his most beautiful works:

The plein-air pictures from Leighton’s trips abroad, usually small in scale and rapidly painted, are among his most beautiful productions. Although he is not thought of as a landscape painter, these pictures are finer than most of his generation. Free from the lofty ambitions of his ‘mythologies’ which can sometimes be rather staged and academic, these landscapes are truthful renditions of light and colour. From his pale studies of white-washed houses on Capri to the sun-baked landscapes of Italy and Egypt, they are saturated with rich, brilliant colour and evocative of summer heat. He favoured elongated compositions with expanses of dark blue water, purple mountains and cloudless skies which emphasise the wide vistas.

Leighton first travelled to Egypt in October 1878 where the Khedive made a steamer available to him to facilitate his trip up the Nile. The Prince of Wales had asked for Leighton to be introduced to the Khedive as a personal friend of his. Leighton’s diary for October 14, 1878 records his first impressions of the landscape along the Nile:

The keynote of this landscape is a soft, variant, fawn-coloured brown, than which nothing could take more gratefully the warm glow of sunlight, or the cool purple mystery of shadow; the latter, perhaps, especially, deep and powerful near the eye (the local brown slightly overruling the violet), but fading as it receded into tints exquisitely vague, and so faint that they seem rather to belong to the sky then to the earth. At this time of year the broad coffee-coloured sweep of the river is bordered on either side by a fillet of green of the most extraordinary vivacity, but redeemed from any hint of crudity by the golden light which inundates it. The brightest green is that of the Indian corn - the softest and most luminous that of an exquisite grass, tall as pampas (perhaps it is a kind of pampas, I have not seen it close yet), and like it crowned with the most beautiful plume-like blossom of the most delicate hue; seen against a dark, shady bank, and with the sun shining through it, it shimmers with the sheen of gossamer… The shape of the hills and mountains is very peculiar and striking. It gives the idea of a choppy sea of sand thrown up into abrupt peaks, and then uniformly truncated by a sweep of a fast scythe, sweeping everything from horizon to horizon. Here and there a little peak, too low to be embraced in the general decapitation, raises its head amongst innumerable table-lands and gives great value and relief to the general outline” [Barrington 133-34]

In this oil sketch On the Nile Leighton portrays some of these features he describes. A promontory, at least partially man made, protrudes out into the Nile. Trees line its banks and distant mountains, almost uniform in height, can be seen in the background. The sky is cloudless and almost a grey-blue, perhaps related to the presence of sand in the atmosphere.


Barrington, Emilie. The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton. London: George Allen, Ruskin House, Vol. II, 1906.

Newall, Christopher. Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and British Impressionist Art. London: Sotheby’s (July 11, 2019), lot 23.

Created 18 December 2022