“From out the horizon the golden rays of an ascending tropical sun fill the upper air with radiance and just tip with rose light the very topmost stones of the Pyramids.” - New York Times, April 24, 1886
ProvenanceBoussod Valadon & Cie., Paris (acquired directly from the artist, March 3, 1887, inv. no. 18392, for 8,250 francs)
Crist Delmonico, New York (acquired from the above for 11,000 francs)
George I. Seney (his sale: American Art Association, New York, February 13, 1891, lot 246)
Peter Arrell Brown Widener, Philadelphia Knoedler & Co., New York (January 14, 1905, inv. No. 10597)
Peter A. Valentine, Chicago (acquired from the above, April 6, 1905 for 4,000 dollars)
Scott & Fowles, New York
Sale: Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, April 18, 1962, lot 76
Acquired at the above sale (and sold: Robert Isaacson, Christie’s, New York, May 6, 1999, lot 9)
Private Collection, Connecticut Sale: Christie’s, London, June 19, 2003, lot 20, illustrated
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
ExhibitedParis, Salon, 1886, no. 1043 (as Le Premier Baiser du soleil)
Poughkeepsie, Vassar College Art Museum, Jean Léon Gérôme and his Pupils, 1967, no. 4
Greenwich, Connecticut, Bruce Museum, Elegance and Opulence: Art of the Gilded Age, Winter 1999
Washington, D.C., Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, November 8-30, 2007
Kansas City, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gérôme and the Lure of the Orient, February 5-July 20, 2014
LiteratureFanny Field Hering, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, New York, 1892, p. 132
Gerald M. Ackerman, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Paris, 1986, pp. 133, 248 and pp. 258-59, no. 345, illustrated Musée Herbert, Album de voyage des artistes en expédition au pays du Levant, Paris, 1993, p. 34
Gerald M. Ackerman, La vie et l’œuvre de Jean-Léon Gérôme, 2nd. ed., Paris, 2000, p. 316, no. 325, illustrated pp. 152, 137 Gerald M. Ackerman, Jean-Léon Gérôme: Les Orientalistes, vol. 4, Paris, 2000, pp. 316-17, no. 345
Gérôme and Goupil: Art and Enterprise, exh. cat., Paris, 2000, p. 43
Exhibited at the Salon of 1886, well after the artist’s final visit to the Middle East and alongside the highly acclaimed General Bonaparte before the Sphinx (Oedipus) (Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA), this picture has been called ". . . the most beautifully composed and painted of Gérôme’s landscapes," (Gerald M. Ackerman, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, London, 1986, p. 258). The view is taken from the west, with the rising sun illuminating the peaks of the pyramids at Gizeh. The largest, or Great, Pyramid of Cheops, was built at Gizeh during the Fourth Dynasty (2680-2565 BC), and was the first pyramid on the west bank of the Nile. (The other pyramids in the composition include those of Chepren and Mycerinus.) The confectionary pinks and purples that color these iconic forms allude to the efforts by the artist to capture the extraordinary palette of the Egyptian landscape, and to the important but often unrecognized contributions that Orientalism would make to Impressionist painting. The Sphinx is barely perceptible in the middle distance – a curious compositional decision, as most artists made this impressive monument their focal point. Gérôme focuses instead on the unexpected gentleness of this harsh desert world, and the close connection that existed between nature and culture. Camels rest, their legs bundled underneath them. Tents echo their shapes, and those of the pyramids beyond. Everything is horizontal, undulating, and sedate. It is indeed a beautifully composed and tinted vision, and a crowning moment in Gérôme’s long and prolific career.
But this is also a valuable and exhilarating historical document of sorts, a poetic record of Gérôme’s Middle Eastern travels with his student, Paul Lenoir. As Lenoir recalled:
"After having followed for some miles the left bank of the Nile, we turned suddenly to our right, leaving our beloved palm trees to cross lands which were in a state of culture doubtless very satisfying to their proprietors, but much too green to please our painter eyes; this general tone, almost disagreeable in its monotony, only made us appreciate more keenly the sharply accentuated line of demarcation between the desert and the cultivated lands. Our attention was distracted from these geological considerations by the sight of the Pyramids, which seemed to flee before us, so greatly did their gigantic proportions deceive us in regard to the distance which remained to be traversed in order to reach them. The view of the Pyramids obtained from Gyzeh is most imposing. Seen from a distance of five or six kilometers, when a caravan between you and them can serve as a scale of proportion, their extraordinary dimensions impress one most forcibly. By the orders of the dragoman, and almost in a traditional manner for those of us who had visited Egypt before, our tents arose, as if by enchantment, under the shade of an enormous sycamore, which insisted on flourishing in the midst of the sand; supplemented by three palm trees, this magnificent tree formed the entire vegetation of the environs; it is under its foliage that all travelers seek shelter and repose before beginning their archeological researches. There were as yet no tenants, so we installed ourselves without protest, and drew up a lease of three days with this hospitable tree, with freedom to move when we pleased. Camels, donkeys, tents, escort, donkey-boys, camel-drivers, our luggage, and ourselves all found ample room under its benevolent branches . . . While the novices in this joyous band hastened away at daybreak to pay a formal call to the Sphinx, scramble to the top of the Great Pyramid and explore its interior, as well as some of the numerous tombs which lie scattered around, Gérôme remained alone to make the sketch which was afterward reproduced in his exquisite painting called The First Kiss of the Sun," (quoted in Fanny Field Hering, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, New York, 1892, p. 132).
Artists’ fascination with the Gizeh plateau, and with Egypt’s desert landscape more broadly, was due in part to the challenge it presented them. During the eighteenth century, European artists had devised the artistic conventions of the Picturesque, whereby a landscape painting was composed in terms of a foreground, middle ground, and background, according to the rules of the French Baroque painters Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-1662). The need to invent new compositional structures to compensate for the absence of conveniently placed vegetation and to animate vast, often barren and featureless landscapes was a major formal problem – and one the Orientalists were determined to solve. Perhaps the most persistent of these artist-inventors was Charles Théodore Frère (1814-1888), whose desert landscapes were favorites of the 19th century Salon, and were well known to Gérôme. The haunting colors of many of Frère’s early morning and late evening scenes may have influenced the artist here: Gérôme’s experimentation with color – the shocking pink of the pyramids’ tops most notably – and his study of the effects of emerging sunlight on various surfaces in some ways recall this artist’s works, and compelled contemporary critics in France, England, and America to laud him as a colorist, as well as France’s finest ethnographic painter. "From out the horizon," a writer for The New York Times penned on April 24, 1886, "the golden rays of an ascending tropical sun fill the upper air with radiance and just tip with rose light the very topmost stones of the Pyramids." The innovative and effortless combination of these two facets of Gérôme’s Orientalism – evocative color schemes and an intense, even photographic realism – have drawn collectors’ interest as well. Prior to its exhibition at the Paris Salon, Gérôme’s work sold for the respectable sum of $600. In 1891, it sold for $6000. In 1999 it sold for $600,000. Such exponential appreciation is testament to the enduring appeal of Gérôme’s paintings, and to the undeniable value of academic art in the historical and often volatile contemporary art worlds.
This catalogue note was written by Emily M. Weeks, Ph.D.