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Eugene Fromentin’s Voyage en Egypte: A Realist Vision of Egypt with Modern Continuity, by Guillermo Juberías Gracia

Eugene Fromentin’s Voyage en Egypte: A Realist Vision of Egypt with Modern Continuity, by Guillermo Juberías Gracia

Eugène Fromentin (1820-1876), a French artist from the 19th century, shared the same fascination as many of his peers with North Africa. He chose to explore and live in Algeria, starting from 1846. In addition to his talent as an orientalist painter, Fromentin was also a prolific writer, focusing his works on the unique lifestyles of the Maghreb region from an ethnographic and scientific standpoint. To accomplish this, he fearlessly immersed himself in the culture and environment of the territory, capturing the essence through sketches and meticulous written observations.

It is worth noting the circumstances under which his Voyage en Egypte was written. Eugène Fromentin released two books, Un été dans le Sahara in 1856 and Une année dans le Sahel in 1858. In 1869, he had the opportunity to witness the inauguration of the Suez Canal, a significant international event that attracted scientists, writers, and artists from around the world. This international event was to have a major influence on the development of Egyptomania in the following years, as it brought many Western writers, artists, composers, and politicians to Egypt. From 15 October to 28 November 1869, Fromentin traveled around Egypt, producing numerous illustrations. While traveling, he diligently recorded numerous observations, which he intended to publish as a continuation of his previous works and as a conclusion to his trilogy on the Maghreb. Unfortunately, these notes remained unpublished at the time of his passing in 1876. Consequently, they were posthumously published by Louis Gonse in 1881 and later by Jean-Marie Carré in 1935.

Fig. 1: Portrait of Eugène Fromentin by himself on the frontispiece of Eugène Fromentin, writer and painter. Published in Le Pays d’Ouest (1920) / Monument à Eugène Fromentin by Ernest Henri Dubois (1905), La Rochelle, place des Petits-Bancs (Source: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eug%C3%A8ne_Fromentin)

Fromentin’s texts on Egypt can be seen as a contribution to the fascination with Egypt that was prevalent in the late 19th century. Fromentin’s narrative is situated within a well-established tradition of travelogues concerning Egypt. A significant number of these accounts have been meticulously studied as part of the EETA project (Early Egyptian Travel Accounts from Late Antiquity to Napoleon), coordinated by the Universität Trier.

While known primarily as a landscape painter, Fromentin’s literary work also reflects his interest in capturing the essence of the Egyptian landscape. According to Małgorzata Sokołowicz, his focus lies more on providing detailed descriptions of the scenery, rather than depicting the Egyptian people. Fromentin occasionally uses descriptions of colors and shapes as if they were notes for his future paintings.

 

In his own artistic creations, Fromentin depicts Egypt with a lens of Orientalism, alluding to the remnants of Ancient Egypt through its ruins. In contrast to contemporaries, like Lawrence Alma-Tadema, he abstains from reimagining the original appearance of these structures from antiquity. Consequently, Fromentin’s artwork diverges significantly from the grandiose style typical of other historical painters. Nevertheless, his depictions of the Nile exhibit a profound sensitivity and subtlety, as writer Agatha Christie’s also did later, among others.

Fig. 2: Copy of Voyage en Égypte in the Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris.

Did narratives akin to Fromentin’s exert an impact on popular culture during the late 19th and 20th centuries? The answer is affirmative. Such travel accounts played a pivotal role in fostering Western fascination with Egypt and, consequently, the ancient Egyptian civilization. The incorporation of visual imagery further enhanced the allure of these tales, capturing greater interest from audiences. These accounts from the 19th century held significant importance in disseminating knowledge about ancient Egypt to the general populace.

It is essential to acknowledge that while major European museums had already amassed collections of Egyptian art since the Napoleonic era, these institutions were predominantly situated in urban centers accessible solely to city residents or affluent individuals capable of traveling to these capitals. In this regard, travelogues played a significant role in disseminating knowledge about remote regions to a considerably broader audience. Eugène Fromentin’s work was perceived as a precise and realistic portrayal, particularly in its descriptions of landscapes, ancient remains, and inhabitants. Consequently, it garnered widespread readership from those seeking a more authentic depiction of Egypt or North Africa, one that transcended the romanticized portrayals commonly found in the works of Romantic travelers.

Travelogues in Egypt during the 19th century, such as Fromentin’s, constructed an image of the country that would later be continued in the filmed travelogues of the 20th century, which have recently been studied by Dr. Samuel Fernández-Pichel. In this sense, the photographic illustrations published in Fromentin’s account helped to popularize certain temples and archaeological sites that were later seen in the more modern 20th century filmed travelogues.

Authors: Guillermo Juberías Gracia, Universidad de Valencia (Spain)

Further reading: 

Barthélemy, G. 1996. Fromentin et l’écriture du désert. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Sokołowicz, M. 2017. Physionomie proprement égyptienne. L’image de l’autre dans le Voyage en Égypte d’Eugène Fromentin, Multilinguales 8 (online).

Thompson, J. and Wright, B. 1987. La Vie et l’œuvre d’Eugène Fromentin. Courbevoie: ACR.

Videos (coming soon)

Fernández Pichel, S. 2024. The Egyptian Imaginary in Filmed Travelogues (Conference, International Seminar Egypopcult: Reception of Antiquity in Contemporary Popular Culture. 24th-26th January 2024). Lisbon: University of Lisbon.

Featured image:

Eugène Fromentin, The Banks of the Nile, National Gallery London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Abraham I. Fernández Pichel

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Abraham I. Fernández Pichel - Rogério Sousa - Eleanor Dobson - Filip Taterka - Guillermo Juberías Gracia - José das Candeias Sales
Nuno Simões Rodrigues - Samuel Fernández-Pichel - Sara Woodward - Tara Sewell-Lasater - Thomas Gamelin – Leire Olabarría
Alfonso Álvarez-Ossorio - Jean-Guillaume Olette-Pelletier - Marc Orriols-Llonch


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