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Arthur Melville
Pyramids
Watercolour, gouache, gum Arabic and pencil with scratching out on paper : 28,1 X 44,6 cm
Signed and dated 1881 bottom right
Cardiff, National Gallery
 

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Bar, Alexandre de
"The Pyramids"
In short
 
De Bar was a mediocre French landscape painter who is best known for his engravings that he made for popular magazines. He went to Egypt in 1856 to participate in an expedition to the sources of the river Nile. The expedition left, one year later, without our painter. Back in France in 1857 he painted one, just a single painting representing Egypt: ours.
 
This dreamy view represents the three pyramids of Giza. Indeed three: the fourth one at the extreme left is a way too large representation of the  first queen’s pyramid of Pharaoh Mykerinus. 
The central pyramid, second from right, is the pyramid of Kephren, easily recognizable by its partly retained casing at the top.
 
As to the rather mountainous desert: a romantic exaggeration of the rather flat surface of the plateau of Giza.
 
In this single souvenir de Bar has summed up the mystery of Egypt.
 
About Alexandre de Bar
 
French painter
Montreuil-sur-Mer 1821 – 1908 Paris
 
Landscape painter, draughtsman and engraver.
 
His birthplace lays in the hinterland of Le Touquet in N. France. Funny enough Montreuil-sur-Mer does not give onto the sea: it is 15 minutes driving to the closest beach.
 
De Bar started as a porcelain painter. Other well-known painters also started their career this way:
- Narcisse Diaz de la Pena (1807 – 1876), one of the most important members of the School of Barbizon; 
- Jean-Marie-Dominique Troyon (1780 - 1817), whose son Constant also became an important Barbizon painter.
 
At the age of twenty de Bar became a pupil of the landscape painter Léonard-Alexis Daligé de Fontenay (1813 – 1892). One year later in 1842 de Bar quit his job and became a fulltime painter.
 
Paintings by the Bar are actually very rare. He is best-known for his engravings, especially those that he made for popular magazines such as “Magasin Pittoresque”, “Musée des Familles” or “Tour du Monde”.
 
As to Egypt as an artistic subject: I know of only one more drawing representing it.
 
About our painting
 
De Bar was, to put it politely, a very mediocre artist. 
But he produced one great, mysterious painting: ours.
 
In 1856 he was to join as a draughtsman an expedition to the source of the river Nile, but he remained the rest of the year in Egypt. He painted our painting in 1857 just after his return to France: only one painting, this one, was his souvenir of that great country.
 
I know of just one such expedition to find the source of the Nile, which was to leave in 1856: the famous one that John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton prepared to find the mysterious Great Lakes said to be in the centre of Africa. In 1857 they reached Lake Tanganyika together, in 1858 Speke returned alone to Africa and he finally discovered Lake Victoria, the actual source of the River Nile. There is very little information about our painter, so I was not able to find back how he got involved in the preparation of this expedition, which he never participated in, nor where he stayed in Egypt. Besides our painting I discovered a single drawing of Egypt: palm trees in Saqqarah, so not even its famous stepped pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser. 
 
Of course in 1856 the study of Egypt and the archaeological discoveries made there were still in an initial stage. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte, then a 29 year-old general of the French Revolution, led a military force to Egypt, which was accompanied by an extensive commission of scientists and artists. In 1829 their monumental 23 volumes of the “Description de l’Egypte” was published.
Egypt now attracted adventurers and plunderers such as the infamous Belzoni. Only in 1850 arrived the first professional Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette, who was born in Boulogne-sur-Mer the same year (1821) as our painter, only 40 km N. of Montreuil. I did not find any mention of de Bar meeting Mariette.
 
Remains of course one important question: which pyramids did de Bar actually paint here? The obvious choice would have been to paint the three large pyramids just outside Cairo.
But de Bar painted here four pyramids, two at the centre of his composition and two more in the left background. Nowhere in Egypt stand four such large pyramids together.
 
Still I do believe de Bar painted the three Giza pyramids. Clearly our painter made some mistakes or should I call them romantic adaptations:
- the desert in Giza is not that mountainous, it is actually rather flat;
- de Bar did not care to paint the Sphinx. Its head and neck and part of the bedrock that forms its body were in those days already visible. Seeing his viewpoint he probably stood right next to it; 
- as to the mysterious fourth pyramid: in the left background the first Queen’s Pyramid behind the Pyramid of Mykerinus is painted too large, it is actually much smaller.
 
From right to left he painted the Pyramid of Cheops and the Pyramid of Kephren. These pyramids stand indeed closer to each other. The pyramid of Kephren in the centre of our painting is recognizable by its partly retained casing at the top. In the background the Pyramid of Mykerinus, with left of it the first and best preserved of the three small pyramids of his queens.
 
Why should you buy this painting?
 
Because this dreamy composition in its romantic adaptations and mistakes sums up the mystery of Egypt as de Bar had seen it in real one year before painting it in 1857.
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