This painting shows Beni Suef, on the Nile, about seventy miles south of Cairo in Egypt. You can see the town bathed in gentle light with people resting in the shadows in the foreground and under the trees in the middle distance. It looks heavily fortified with strong walls and towers and the scene looks exotic, with tall elegant palm trees rising above the buildings.
This is an example of 19th-century Orientalist painting. This type of painting, where the subject matter is the Near-East (for example modern Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Iraq), was particularly favoured by western artists in the 19th century. At this time travel improved, making the Near East more accessible, and Europe became more politically involved in, and therefore interested in and aware of, this part of the world.
Also, in 1809-22, the French government produced Description de l'Egypte, a 24-volume publication illustrating the monuments, inhabitants, plants, wildlife and geography of Egypt. This was triggered by Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and gave rise to French paintings, furniture and interiors inspired by the landscape and architecture of that country.
Prosper Marilhat was a French artist, born in Paris, who visited the Near East in 1831-3, staying in Egypt from October 1831 to May 1833. He brought back many studies and established a considerable reputation for himself as an Orientalist painter as well as a portraitist. In his last years he became insane and he died in an asylum.
» Use this painting to discuss reflections by looking at those of the trees and buildings in the water. Pupils could create their own image and reflection, deciding carefully how large the expanse of water will be and therefore how much of the land will be reflected, a well as the stillness or movement of the water, dictating whether reflections are possible.
» Prosper Marilhat had stayed in Egypt for 1½ years and so must have got to got to know the country fairly well. Sometimes Orientalist paintings present a very romantic and ideal view of life abroad, rather than the harsh realities. Do you think this is the case here?