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Arts: Everybody's Favorite Orientalist
January 24, 2005 by Howard Blas

In spite of the romanticized nature of his images, or perhaps because of it, it is David Roberts’s 19th-century prints that many still think of when they think of the Holy Land

Jewish tradition holds that Moses was denied entry to the Land of Israel for striking the rock. Although the fairness of that punishment has occupied students and believers for generations, the water-producing rock itself did not receive much attention in the West until the days of artist David Roberts. A classic Roberts lithograph, entitled “Rock of Moses, Wadi-el-Leja, Mount Horeb,” features an enormous boulder, in whose shade appear a group of “authentic” locals - turbaned Arabs, several of them holding muskets. In the book of Roberts’s Holy Land prints, it is said to be understood as “the actual rock struck by Moses at the command of the Lord, when water gushed forth to supply the Israelites in the desert.”

It is likely that more than a handful of the 2,000 travelers, authors and illustrators from Europe and America who visited the Holy Land between 1800 and 1878 encountered the rock, in the southern Sinai, near St. Catherine’s Monastery, demonstrating - and further piquing - Western interest in the Holy Land. The names of some have attained household status to even amateur students of Biblical archaeology - Charles Warren, Edward Robinson, Charles Wilson. But perhaps the most influential was the Scottish Roberts (1796-1864), a landscape artist who spent 10 months, in 1838-39, dressed in Arab garb, making accurate and charming sketches of everything he saw, from Cairo to Ba’albek. It is likely Roberts is the artist whose work provided access to the greatest number of viewers to images of the people and places of the land of the Bible, in the days before the spread of the photographic image or the advent of the mass media. Even today, many people see a Roberts print or painting in their mind’s eye when they think of Israel.

Ninety of Roberts’s 123 Holy Land lithographs were on exhibit this past autumn at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, on loan from Duke University. According to Prof. Sarah Walker Schroth, a curator at Duke, the university’s Museum of Art (now called the Nasher Museum of Art), inspired by a scientific and cultural exchange between Israel and North Carolina in 1996-1997, had an unusual opportunity to purchase a complete set of the prints, which she notes were “very fresh, and unexposed to light, all in an unbound leather imperial set prepared for Queen Victoria.”

Knights of Columbus Museum director Larry Sowinski said that his institution had been in discussions with the Duke Museum about a Roberts exhibit for several years. “The lithographs don’t travel for more than eight weeks a year, and they haven’t been on display in more than two years,” he added.

Roberts, the son of a poor shoemaker, began sketching castles, churches and ruins as a young boy growing up in Stockbridge, Scotland, near Edinburgh. From early on, notes Schroth, Roberts developed a pattern of rendering a site from every possible angle. At age 12 he was apprenticed to a local decorative house-painter, who provided Roberts with his only real instruction. From his employer, says Schroth, speaking by phone from Durham, Roberts learned “the then-popular trompe l’oeil effect for marble and wood. After seven years, with the experience in rendering architecture and building materials, he found work as a scene painter for a local traveling theater company.” That job was followed by positions at the Royal Theater of Glasgow and the Royal Theater of Edinburgh, and in 1822, work at London’s Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

In an essay she wrote for a 1996 volume of Roberts prints, Schroth explained further that “traveling with the company taught Roberts how to work effectively on the road: He developed the scene painter’s ability to keep meticulous order in make-shift studios that could be set up and broken down quickly. He also found time to indulge in his first love, sketching out of doors: ‘Day after day, I made the most careful drawings of every buttress, canopy bar and crocket, with all a lover’s first love and devotion. Is there an old abbey or village church within a dozen miles that I have not visited?’”

In 1820, Roberts married Margaret McLachlan, an actress, and, when she died young, he became solely responsible for raising their daughter. When his work took him away for extended periods of time, Roberts managed to find caretakers to look after her.

His first trip abroad was to Normandy, and the reception of his painting of “The West Facade, Notre Dame, Rouen,” Schroth wrote, “encouraged him to forgo the security of his theatrical salary for the vagaries of the fine-art world.”

He next traveled to Spain, where he was attracted to sites of medieval pilgrimage, gypsy garments and the architecture of the Moors. On this trip, Roberts utilized lithography, a print-making process that had been invented in Germany only in 1798. Again, his work was well-received: He sold 1,200 sets of his Spain prints in two months, and he used the proceeds to finance an expedition to Palestine, which would prove to be his most successful and important journey.

A pious Presbyterian who knew well the stories of the Bible, Roberts decided to start by retracing the route of Moses and the Children of Israel, beginning in Cairo, going through Suez and Sinai to Petra. Archaeologist Eric M. Meyers, the director of Duke’s Center for Jewish Studies, says that Roberts left Egypt “with an entourage of 15 Beduin guides and porters and 21 camels, and much ammunition.” He crossed the Jordan River, and traveled through the Holy Land north to Syria (today Lebanon). Dressed in native garb, Roberts covered an extraordinary amount of ground in 10 months and was clearly skilled at sketching quickly, allowing him to accurately render a scene before light and weather conditions changed. He returned home with three full sketchbooks and more than 270 watercolors.

Roberts’s prints began as sketches, done in pencil or charcoal, to which he added notes about the colors. The original sketches, which have long since been lost, were completed only when he returned home, and were then transferred to lithographic stone. The printing, an arduous process undertaken in a number of stages, which varied depending on how many colors were used, was carried out by the leading lithographer of the time, the Belgian Louis Haghe.

When Napoleon conquered Egypt, in 1799, he had with him 35,000 soldiers and a “Commission of Arts,” which consisted of 175 “savants” - scientists, geographers, cartographers, architects, engineers, orientalists and historians. The modern age’s interest in exploring and studying the lands of the Middle East can be traced to that expedition. “It was only as a result of Napoleon’s rediscovery of the East and parts of Palestine and his 21-volume publication in French about what he and the ‘savants’ discovered, along with the two-volume English summary of it by D.V. Denon, that the Middle East and its physical and visual heritage started to come to life in the West,” explains Duke’s Eric Meyers. Meyers, whose numerous excavations in Israel have included Tzippori (Sephoris), has written on the British and American rediscovery of Palestine in the 1800s. By the time Napoleon’s troops were defeated by the British, at the Battle of Acre in January, 1799, his staff had compiled the information that led, 11 years later, to the publication of “Jacotin’s Map,” the first modern cartographic survey of the Holy Land. While most of its 47 folios cover Egypt, six deal with such places in Palestine as Gaza, Jerusalem, Caesarea, Acre, Nazareth and the Jordan River.

In 1801, Edward Daniel Clarke, an English explorer, set out to identify some of the major sites of the Bible; his Swiss student Jean Louis Burckhardt soon followed and explored places in native dress, transcribing hundreds of archaeological inscriptions in Syria. Burckhardt was the first modern traveler to identify Petra.

Then came Edward Robinson, best remembered today because of the arch he identified, which during the Second Temple Period had emerged from the southern end of the western wall of the Temple Mount, and spanned the Tyropeon Valley. Robinson and his colleague, Rev. Eli Smith, tried to recreate the route of the Biblical Exodus, as well as to systematically identify all the places associated with or mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Many others followed, including Mark Twain, who returned from his 1867 travels to Palestine to write more than 50 chapters of observations in “The Innocents Abroad,” in which he famously described Palestine as a “desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds - a silent mournful expanse… We never saw a human being on the whole route.”

Roberts was still among the first Westerners to visit Palestine, which contributed to the appeal of his work. The Nasher Museum’s Schroth points out that people still buy copies of Roberts’s 123 lithographs of the Holy Land, whose accuracy can be confirmed today by actual visitors to many of the same sites. Photography was still in its infancy when Roberts was active, and he saw his job as offering a faithful recording of what he saw.

Eric Meyers explained to The Report that for people in the West at the time, the Holy Land, “like the Middle East in general, was not a reality, let alone a visual one. The local, Ottoman-Oriental- Arab culture was alien and foreign to the West, but Roberts and others gave it an attractive, exotic face.” At the same time, he adds, it was that exotic quality that served as “the basis of the bias of Orientalism, the manner in which Westerners viewed Middle Eastern culture and the feelings of superiority that underlay it, despite their appreciation of it.”

One particularly fascinating image, which has been used in posters and banners advertising the New Haven exhibition, features several local residents of Jaffa watching four Polish Jewish pilgrims await their ship to return home following an 1839 visit to Palestine. “In those images,” notes Meyers, “we see not only important details of everyday life, we see them in a way that made them attractive and appealing. We see the locals in colorful dress and costume, we see the holy places accentuated, as in the series of Jerusalem, and so on.” The exhibit also features a small photograph of each place as it now appears.

For now, the lithographs, which have shed so much light on life in Palestine, are heading back to Durham to soak up some darkness, so their rich colors can be preserved for future generations. Duke’s new 65,000-square-foot Nasher Museum of Art opens in October, and Schroth says that some of the Roberts prints will be on display then. But until then, or until the museum agrees to another traveling loan, the best way to view the Roberts prints is in a stunning volume published by Duke in 1996, “Jerusalem and the Holy Land Rediscovered: The Prints of David Roberts (1796-1864),” which reproduces all 123 of the prints, along with the original text, by “the Reverend George Croly, L.L.D.” For those whose budget precludes that book’s $100 price tag, the Knights of Columbus Museum has produced a less lavish and less costly book that still features the 90 prints displayed in New Haven.
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