Eugène Fromentin (1820–1876) was a French painter who specialised in scenes of life in North Africa. He travelled there several times during his career, storing up a stock of images that he could turn into pictures to satisfy the French taste for oriental subjects. The Banks of the Nile of 1874 was painted five years after he had visited Egypt to witness the opening of the Suez Canal.
It is a poetic image of river life: a gentle breeze pushes a felucca along while other small boats ply their trade and Arabs chat on the river bank. Fromentin gave this everyday scene a familiar air by using the techniques of Dutch Golden Age maritime painters such as Willem van de Velde, father and son, who had painted Dutch ships in moments of sunlit calm. Fromentin shows that the life of the river is the same the world over.
Eugène Fromentin was not just a painter but a writer whose works encompassed fiction, travel and art history. He was born in La Rochelle, a coastal city in western France, and trained as a landscape painter. A visit to Algeria in 1846, in the footsteps of his artistic hero, the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, transformed his art. This journey and subsequent trips to North Africa in 1852 and 1869 gave him a stock of sights and motifs on which he drew for the rest of his career. At the time, Britain and France were vying for influence over Egypt. Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 – a French achievement – France was anxious to stress its connection with the country, and images of the Nile became popular in the 1870s.
Fromentin’s paintings catered to the contemporary taste for Orientalist scenes, with their overtones of the exotic and erotic. His paintings frequently played up the picturesque and dramatic aspects of North Africa – hawking expeditions, banditry, sandstorms and desert starvation – but he also produced gentler scenes of caravans, oases and Nile views. At his best he painted colourful works with a nostalgic feel that harked back to Byron’s poetry and the novels of Sir Walter Scott at the beginning of the century.
The Banks of the Nile of 1874 is one such atmospheric work. Fromentin had visited Egypt in 1869 as a member of the official French delegation to observe the opening of the Suez Canal and had undoubtedly witnessed the everyday life of the river. This painting offers the armchair traveller a slice of Egyptian life as a felucca (a small Nile boat) laden with hay works its way along the river while Arabs chat on the bank and workers raise water from the river in buckets. There are just enough clouds in the sky to suggest the wind that pushes the boats, and Fromentin’s paint has a liquidity perfectly suited to depicting the water. There is no narrative here, just a scene that has remained unchanged for millennia, since the pharaohs ruled the kingdom.
It is also a rather old-fashioned painting. Just two years earlier, in 1872, Claude Monet had painted a scene of boats and ships in a harbour with a radically different approach. His quick oil sketch Impression: Sunrise (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris) showing the port of Le Havre was the signature work of the new Impressionist movement. Fromentin, however, stressed his commitment to tradition. In 1876 he published a study of early Netherlandish painting, Les Maîtres d'autrefois (The Masters of Past Times), and in The Banks of the Nile he mimicked the sea paintings of Dutch Golden Age artists such as Salomon van Ruysdael, Jan van de Cappelle and the Van de Veldes, father and son.
For his audience, this use of a well-known tradition was reassuring. The Nile might be distant in both geography and the imagination, a biblical realm where Moses was found among the bulrushes, but Fromentin made it familiar too. River life and trade was the same the world over, whether on Dutch canals, the Seine or the Nile.
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