Johann Jakob Frey was a Swiss painter who, after a short spell in Paris and in Munich, was active in Rome. Thanks to his participation to the famous expedition of Karl Richard Lepsius that left in 1842 to Egypt, Nubia and a part of Sudan he could specialise as an Orientalist painter. He also painted beautiful Italian views.
Our painting represents the famous island of Philae with its antique Ptolemaic and Roman monuments, situated just S. of Aswan. Frey himself did not travel that far into Egypt, but thanks to his knowledge of the country, its light and nature he was able to create a convincing atmosphere.
The ship moored in front of the island belongs to the important expedition led by Lepsius. It flies the German flag, a flag that came to the fore for the first time in 1848. The painting must therefore most probably date from that year.
About Johann Jakob Frey
Basel 1813 – 1865 Frascati
As Frey lived the major part of his life in Rome he is also known under his Italian name, as Giovanni Giacomo Frey.
Landscape painter of Egyptian and of Italian views.
Son and pupil of the draftsman and lithographer Samuel Frey. Johann Jakob Frey settled in Rome in 1836, following a difficult (short) start of his career in Paris and in Munich.
From Rome, he regularly made painting journeys, as far as Sicily. He was influenced by the School of Posilipo (named after the then small waterfront village, just N. of Naples). This loose group of landscape painters favoured a spontaneous approach of nature, using a bright, light colour palette. Their best-known member, the Dutchman Anton Sminck Pitloo (1790 – 1837) painted his vedute (views) outdoors (no longer in a studio) with natural lighting in an interesting mix of daily life realism and idyllic romanticism.
In 1842 Frey accompanied his friend and admirer, Karl Richard Lepsius, the pioneer of German Egyptology, on his memorable Prussian expedition to Egypt and Nubia. The expedition lasted until 1845, but in 1843, due to health issues, Frey prematurely returned via Athens to Rome.
In his Roman studio Frey painted for the next 27 years views of Egypt that were to make him the most important Orientalist painter in Italy, following in the footsteps of Ippolito Caffi. He painted sites that he had visited himself (Alexandria, Cairo, Lower Egypt and the Faiyum), but also sites from regions where he did not go (as for example Philae), based on descriptions and compositions (water colours, engravings and oil paintings) by Ernst Weidenbach and by other artists, such as the Romantic Scottish painter David Roberts (1796 – 1864, who visited Egypt in 1838/39).
In Rome Frey was one of the founders of the German Artists Union (Deutscher Künstlerverein, Circolo Artistico Tedesco). In 1854 he married Maria Maddalenna Bartoli, a rich woman from Velletri. The couple had three children: a son who died at birth, a daughter who died at the age of almost four and a daughter who maried the Roman sculptor Ettore Ferrari.
Frey’s studio, first in Via di Capo le Case and since 1858 at the prestigious Hotel de Russie (located at the top of Via del Babuino towards Piazza del Popolo) became a lively centre of German artists in Rome.
His works became increasingly sought after by famous collectors, such as the kings of Prussia, Bavaria and Wurtemberg. Many English Grand Tour tourists, members of the aristocracy like the marquis of Londonderry or Lord Oxford, also bought his paintings.
In 1865 Frey died of typhus at his vineyard in Frascati in the Alban Hills. He was buried at the Protestant Cemetery of Rome, near the Pyramid of Cestius. His tomb is decorated with Egyptian motifs.
About the Prussian expedition to Egypt
The expedition (1842 – 1845) led by the linguist Karl Richard Lepsius (1810 – 1884) was commissioned and financed by the new Prussian king, Frederick Wilhelm IV. The mission had three artists: Frey and Ernst Weidenbach had to draw the monuments and landscapes, Max Weidenbach had to copy the hieroglyphics.
The journey started with a six-month study in Lower Egypt of the larger region of Giza, Saqqara and Meidum: 67 pyramids and 130 tombs of noblemen were discovered and documented. Then followed the study of monuments in the Oasis of Faiyum. At their return to Cairo in the summer of 1843 Frey suffered from dysentery, caused by a painful liver abscess. On doctor’s order he was obliged to return to Europe in the second half of August. He was replaced by the German painter Friedrich Otto Georgi (1819 – 1874).
The expedition continued for another two years, pushing very far southward, into Nubia and Sudan, passed Khartoum, onto the Blue Nile. Many monuments were studied in Egypt along the Nile, some in the Delta and in the Sinai.
About our painting
The island of Philae with its temple dedicated to Isis and the elegant kiosk of Emperor Trajan is still one of the favourite sites of Ancient Egypt. Most of its monuments date from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. The original island was situated just S. of Aswan and the First Cataract. Before the completion in 1970 of the Aswan High Dam and the creation of the immense Lake Nasser the temple complex was dismantled and re-built on the nearby, but higher situated Agilkia Island. Its monuments were and still are very much loved for their elegance and beauty, and for their remarkable effects of light and shade. The island rises out of the river like a mirage. It is surrounded by purple mountains in the distance.
Frey did not visit Upper Egypt. He borrowed the view of the island and its monuments from another painter and incorporated it in one of his typical, colourful, idyllic landscapes with its luxuriant palm vegetation, bathing in a warm evening light. This interaction between light, landscape and nature is the hallmark of his art.
About Lepsius’ ship and its German flag
The ship moored in front of the island flies the current German flag. This black-red-gold tricolour played for the first time a prominent role during the Pan-German 1848 Revolution that hit many German states and Austria. This movement followed on the February Revolt in France that ended the reign of King Louis Philippe. King Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia reacted in March with a lot of calm on this nationalist-liberal insurgency: at first giving in onto the demands, but six months later signing a constitution that would not at all gratify the revolutionary petitions.
In Rome the revolutionary ideas divided his German-speaking friends in two groups: those from S. Germany remained liberal, while those of N. Germany were reactionary. Discussions at the Caffè Greco became so violent that Frey, who wanted to stay neutral, left Rome in the spring of 1849 for a tip to Andalusia. He returned to Rome in 1850.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is a beautiful testimony of the early interest in Egypt, around the middle of the 19th century: the island of Philae is one of its most remarkable sites.
Because it represent the ship of the famous Prussian expedition of Karl Richard Lepsius in Egypt, painted in Rome by Frey circa 1848.