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Imaginary Visions of the Land on the Nile from the Biedermeier Era at the Liechtenstein Museum
Norbert Bittner (1786–1851), The Island of Philae. Pen and black ink, watercolour, pencil underdrawing; 496 x 721 mm. Akademie der bildenden Künste Vienna, Kupferstichkabinett © LIECHTENSTEIN MUSEUM. Die Fürstlichen Sammlungen, Wien.

VIENNA, AUSTRIA.- In the early part of the nineteenth century, Norbert Bittner (1786–1851) executed 57 views of a journey to Egypt – without ever having set foot in the country himself. Using French and German volumes of engravings, he made imaginative use of the details he found there, combining them to create his own personal vision of the Land on the Nile.

This series of watercolours was left as a legacy to the Kupferstichkabinett of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1839. Twenty-six of these views, arranged in topographical order from north to south and juxtaposed with modern photographs of the same sights, are shown in the Neoclassical Library of the LIECHTENSTEIN MUSEUM until September 20, 2011.

Norbert Bittner studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna from 1806. Having initially enrolled as a student of landscape painting, he soon transferred to the class for architecture. His exceptional achievements led to the award of a bursary from 1807. Besides making etchings of all the stage designs produced by the theatre designer Joseph Platzer (1751–1806), it seems that he mainly worked for Count Gregor Rasumofsky (1759–1837), who probably commissioned the Egyptian series

For the latter Bittner drew on the Description de l’Egypte (Paris 1809–1828), the monumental documentation of the French expedition, and works by the Cologne-born artist Franz Christian Gau (1789–1853), Antiquité de la Nubie, ou Monuments inédits des bords du Nil, situés entre la première et la seconde cataracte, published by Cotta between 1820 and 1827, and Jean Raymond Pacho (1794–1829), whose illustrated account of his expedition to the ancient sites of Libya including Syrtis Maior in 1824/1825 appeared under the title Voyage dans la Marmarique, la Cyrénaïque et les Oasis d’Audjelah et de Maradèh in Paris in 1827/29.

The selection made by Bittner from the Description de l’Egypte and the engravings of Gau was intended to show the important edifices and works of art from Cairo and Abu Simbel and represent a fictitious journey from the north to the south of Egypt. In his views, Bittner drew on the topography of the individual sites but sometimes gave his imagination free rein, combining various details. He sought to ‘improve’ the original images aesthetically and in terms of composition by depicting the monuments in a stage-like fashion. This invests his views with an intrinsic artistic value, ensuring their impact on anyone interested in Egyptian art. In contrast to the monochrome copperplate engravings, the delicate watercolours deepen the emotional experience of the Nile expeditions and the Egyptian landscapes. They also attest to the huge interest in Europe for the rediscovery of Egypt, and the fashion for all things Egyptian that spread across Europe after 1809, thus representing an early contribution to the popularisation of the monuments of ancient Egypt

Loaned by the Kupferstichkabinett of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, the watercolours are complemented by works from the Library of the Princely Collections which provide a historical view of Egypt, and are contrasted with historical and modern photographs of the same sights as they are today.

The early years of the nineteenth century in Europe saw the rise of widespread enthusiasm for ancient Egyptian monuments in the wake of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, which had been accompanied by a group of scholars and artists. One very early example of this interest in all things Egyptian is the series of 57 watercolours by Norbert Bittner (1786–1851), today preserved in the collections of prints and drawings at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Norbert Bittner studied landscape painting and architecture from 1806–1811. His views of Ancient Egypt, which were probably commissioned by Count Gregor Rasumofsky (1759–1837), drew primarily on the Description de l’Egypte (Paris, 1809–1828), the monumental documentation of the French military expedition, and on the engravings of the temples of Lower Nubia by Franz Christian Gau (Stuttgart, 1822–1827). For his small number of views of Cyrenaica (today in eastern Libya) Bittner made use of Relation d’un voyage dans la Marmarique, le Cyrénaïque, et les Oasis d’Audjelah et de Maradèh by Jean Raymond Pacho (Paris, 1827–1829). From these works he selected the most important monuments and artefacts to illustrate his fictitious journey from Cairo to Abu Simbel. Although Norbert Bittner largely remained true to his sources, he sometimes gave free rein to his imagination, placing the monuments under cloudy European skies or in a verdant, often southern Italianate landscape. Occasionally he added decorative elements or new architectural details to make a capriccio. The objective depictions of his sources were transformed into theatrical compositions and ‘improved’ with colourful staffage figures.

These watercolours are joined by a number of volumes from the Princely Library to supplement the historical perspective of Egypt, including Athanasius Kircher’s Obeliscus Pamphilius (1650), Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s Entwurff einer historischen Architektur (1721) and Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini (1769). The Baroque polymath Kircher made an attempt to decipher hieroglyphics, while Fischer was the first European author to include non European monuments and buildings, for example the pyramids of Giza, in a work of architectural theory. The inspirational architect, theorist and archaeologist Piranesi used Egyptian motifs in no fewer than ten of his large-format fireplace designs.

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