Feel Art Again: "Israel in Egypt"

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The British painter Sir Edward Poynter was born on this day in 1836. To celebrate his 172nd birthday, we'll take a look at his first great success, his large historical painting, "Israel in Egypt" (1867).

1. Like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's paintings, Sir Edward Poynter's paintings are rich in architectural detail. Not surprising, since his father was Ambrose Poynter, a well-known architect. Poynter was accused of disregarding architectural accuracy in the creation of "Israel in Egypt," though. The background features the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Temple from Philae, the Obelisk from Heliopolis, and the Pylon Gateway from Edfu, buildings that span not only a great physical distance, but also different time periods.

2.Several members of Poynter's extended family were also well-known. His great-grandfather, Thomas Banks, was a sculptor. His wife, Agnes MacDonald, was one of the MacDonald sisters discussed in Judith Flanders' book, A Circle of Sisters. Her sisters included Alice, mother of Rudyard Kipling, the author and poet; Georgiana, wife of Edward Burne-Jones, the painter; and Louisa, wife of Alfred Baldwin, the industrialist, and mother of Stanley Baldwin, three-time prime minister.

3. Poynter was a well-respected authority in the art world. He served as the first Slade Professor (senior professorship of art) at the University of London from 1871-1875, as the principal of the National Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art) from 1875-1881, and as director of the National Gallery from 1894-1904, during which time he oversaw the opening of the Tate Gallery. He also served 23 years as the president of the Royal Academy, from 1896 until his death. His lectures as Slade Professor were published in 1879 as Ten Lectures on Art. In 1896, after becoming president of the Royal Academy, he was knighted and six years later he was made a baronet.

4. "Israel in Egypt" is a graphic depiction of Exodus I: 7-11, which reads:

But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific. They became so numerous and strong that the land was filled with them... Accordingly, taskmasters were set over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor. Thus they had to build for Pharaoh the supply cities of Pithom and Raamses. (NAB)

Poynter's depiction includes an Egyptian princess carrying a baby Moses. (To better see details, check out the larger version here.)

5. Poynter toiled on "Israel in Egypt" for three years, after which it was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Besides the architectural criticism, Poynter also received criticism for his choice of subject matter. As one reviewer from The Art Journal wrote, "the painter labours under the disadvantage of having chosen a disagreeable, not to say revolting subject." The piece was bought by Sir John Hawkshaw, a civil engineer, who added the additional complaint that the painting was unrealistic because, to move a granite sculpture of such magnitude, more slaves would have been necessary. To improve the realism of his piece and keep the customer happy, Poynter added more slaves to the procession, filling them in all the way to the right-hand edge of the canvas.

6. During the course of his career, Poynter dabbled in other artistic areas as well. He practiced as a designer in fresco, mosaic, stained glass, pottery, and tile-work. In 1892, he designed the reverse of the shilling and florin coins. He also decorated the ceiling of Waltham Abbey, in Essex, in 1860; executed 12 woodcarving illustrations for the Dalziel brothers' Bible Gallery, published in 1880; edited the illustrated art textbook Classic and Italian Painting, also published in 1880; and contributed drawings to Once a Week and other magazines.

A larger version of the painting is available here. A high-resolution version is also available, but it takes longer to load. A gallery of many of Poynter's works is available at ARC.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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March 20, 2008 - 10:28am
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