Thomas Seddon’s 13.78″ x 18.5″ oil on watercolor painting, Pyramids at Gizeh, painted in 1855, combines the philosophy of the Romantics, who saw beauty in peaceful pastoral landscapes, with the political nationalism of Bismarck’s era. The painting shows the three pyramids of the Gizeh plain in Egypt, including the Great Pyramid, with the sun radiating a sunset glow directly behind the pyramids. The perspective of the painting is from a nearby shoreline, so there are reflections of the pyramids in the water. The peaceful yet powerful image highlights both the romantic style of art that was preferred in this era, as well as the political trend of nationalism throughout continental Europe.
The Romantic movement was an artistic and literary movement that viewed nature as an ideal state. In many ways, this was a reaction against the technological advancements that had occurred throughout the Industrial Revolution. Romantic paintings are characterized by their pastoral, or rural, landscapes. This style of painting often seeks to capture nature at its most inviting, and often do not feature modern forms of architecture. Seddon’s Pyramids at Gizeh displays all the elements of a romantic painting: the image takes place at sunset, so there are soft, pastoral colors in the sky; no people are visible, and the only sign of human technology besides the pyramids themselves is a little field possibly used for farmland to the left. A few pelicans can be seen grazing in the shallow water. The overall mood of the painting is very calming and peaceful.
The element that relates to nationalism would be the main subject of the painting, the three pyramids of Gizeh, with two being large and the third, which is positioned between the two larger pyramids, is much smaller due to distance. In Bismarck’s era, many countries in Europe were developing a strong sense of nationalism. This would eventually lead to German unification under Bismarck’s leadership. Although Seddon was a British painter, nationalism would have been strong in England at this time as well, as it was establishing a large colonial empire under the banner of Great Britain. The pyramids are essentially Egypt’s most prominent landmark, and therefore it is Egypt’s most signifying national symbol. By placing the pyramids as the most prominent feature of the painting, Seddon’s Pyramids at Gizeh highlights and honors the Egyptian culture. With the primary feature of the sun setting directly behind the pyramids, there are also light rays that appear to emanate from the pyramids themselves, which is a symbolic reference to power. This conveys the sense that the pyramids themselves are giving off light, while also making the pyramids appear as grandiose as possible.
The Egyptians at the time were very admired by the British; there was a growth of interest in Egypt due to British archaeological discoveries at the time, and the British had recently established the Suez canal, which made trade possible with the rest of Africa. As such, Seddon was highlighting the Egyptian culture in a tradition similar to nationalistic trends in art at the time. Countries were often identified by their landmarks, and the pyramids at Gizeh would have been the most prominent landmark in Egypt. At the same time, Seddon also was portraying this view of the pyramids from a romantic perspective, as seen in the overall composition of the painting. Thus, the painting is very representative of the Bismarck era, as the romantic painting style contains the tradition of romanticism popular during the era, along with the nationalistic symbolism of the pyramids, which was in line with how many European countries viewed identity as being inherently linked to culture.
- Pyramids at Gizeh, by Thomas Seddon, 1855.