The artist as tour guide
It's been said that people travel to reinforce what they already know, not to discover anything new. This theory may also explain the appeal of pictures that strengthen visual perceptions of a specific place. Such is the case with the captivating lithographs David Roberts made in Egypt and the Holy Land in 1838-1839, twelve of which are currently on view at the U-M's Kelsey Museum.
Just before the flowering of the photographic travelogue, Roberts was one of the first intrepid European artists to travel to the Near East, making countless sketches along the way. Taking advantage of Victorian wanderlust and the mass-communication properties of lithography, Roberts sold prints of his drawings to avid armchair tourists hooked on the irresistible exoticism of the "Orient."
In General View of the Convent of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai (1839) - the newest addition to the Kelsey's modest Roberts archive and the impetus behind the current exhibition - the convent fits snug as a puzzle piece into a soaring mountain valley reminiscent of monumental Chinese landscapes. Statuesque cypress trees echo the geologic formations above. A second, much smaller print of St. Catherine's provides a sweeping horizontal view of the site, which has been extensively studied and documented by Kelsey-affiliated archaeologists. Loosely rendered figures in bright costumes travel in small caravans or pose in artificial, theatrical clusters to suggest movement and scale.
On an adjacent wall is Roberts's double portrait vignette of the Statues of Memnon, Thebes (1838) depicting King Amenhotep III. The colossal seated sentinels guard the plain in bright sunlight, dividing the panoramic image in two. Placing the viewer at ground level with deep shadow ahead, Roberts heightens the drama and grandeur of the scene.
Initially drawn in by Roberts's strong diagonals, one responds to these pleasing vistas on a purely formal level: satisfying, balanced compositions of recessed perspective and earthy hues. Conventions of the English picturesque ("that which would look good in a picture") and the seventeenth-century Arcadian landscape
tradition inform Roberts's removed, artfully arranged style, creating a palatable theater of the unfamiliar.
Roberts's six-volume set of Near East prints was a tremendous success, no doubt because it evocatively confirmed Romantic expectations of the region. Yet some have critiqued his ambitious project as mere topographic reportage. Clearly Roberts wasn't interested in competing with J. M. W. Turner and his ilk to capture the feeling of the Romantic sublime in nature; there's nothing melancholy or especially meditative about Roberts's ruins. His compelling lithographic legacy falls somewhere in the middle. Conservative? Sure. But that's part of its charm.
A Victorian's Passion: David Roberts, 1796-1864 is on view at the Kelsey through December 15 Rieke
[Originally published in November, 2002.]