Friday, November 09, 2012

Rive Oriental du Nil

'He would like to travel, if he could, stretched out on a sofa and not stirring, watching landscapes, ruins and cities pass before him like the screen of a panorama, mechanically unwinding.'  
Thus, thirty years later, Maxime du Camp recalled the attitude of his travelling companion, Gustave Flaubert, on their journey down the Nile to Thebes. 'This journey, which he had so cherished as a dream and whose realization had seemed to him impossible, did not satisfy him.' However, as Alain de Botton pointed out in The Art of Travel, Flaubert's youthful attraction to Egypt had not been misconceived, 'he simply replaced an absurdly idealised image with a more realistic but nevertheless still profoundly admiring one, he exchanged a youthful crush for a knowledgeable love.'  Writing to his mother, Flaubert said that his experience of Egypt had in fact extended far beyond the narrow idea he had held of it.  'I have found, clearly, delineated, everything that was hazy in my mind.'  This clear delineation can be seen in Flaubert's travel notes, which include the kind of luminous realistic details he would seek to write into Madame Bovary.  And in addition, Flaubert and du Camp had promised the Institut de France photographs of monuments and casts of inscriptions obtained by applying wet paper (a tedious process Flaubert often complained about in his travel notes). The image below seems to capture a sense of the country coming into focus.  

"Rive Oriental du Nil, Nubie"

1849-50, calotype



Maxime du Camp, Rive Oriental du Nil, Nubie, 1849-50
Source: Lee Gallery

[A footnote in Francis Steegmuller's wonderful compilation of letters and journals, Flaubert in Egypt, suggests that Maxime De Camp's reference to a panorama in the quotation above may reflect the fact that they encountered in Egypt the renowned panorama painter, Colonel Jean-Charles Langlois (1789-1870).  Langlois is a fascinating figure - a former student of Horace Vernet and an officer under Napoleon, whose rotunda in Paris opened with a panorama of the Naval Battle of Navarino featuring imitation terrain, gas lighting to simulate fire and ventilation to convey the breeze off the sea.  In 1839 a new grander rotunda was built and panoramas like The Burning of Moscow were a huge success, although profits were declining by the time du Camp and Flaubert met Langlois on the Nile.  Langlois used his Egyptian drawings for Battle of the Pyramids (1853) but two years later the rotunda was taken over and Langlois returned to active military service in the Crimea.  The connection between art and war continued even after his death: in 1944, during the Battle for Caen, half the paintings that had been housed in a special Langlois museum were destroyed.]

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