My work in the Wilbour Library involves keeping an eye out for books the Library needs, and carrying out archival research into the history of the Egyptian collections in support of the Library’s educational mission. In the Library’s Special Collections I’ve been particularly intrigued by a small group of eighteenth century drawings of Egyptian objects. These were probably made by the German artist Johann Justin Preissler (1698-1771), and provide a rare glimpse into early studies of Egyptian objects.
At the time Preissler made his drawings, Egypt was an inaccessible, mysterious land. Few objects were held in Western museums or collections, and hieroglyphic inscriptions could not be read. Preissler’s drawings are of interest not only because they record objects that may now be lost or damaged, but also because they show how these Egyptian objects appeared to an eighteenth century eye.
My favourite drawing shows the back view of a long-haired figure, its right arm bent at the elbow, seated on a falcon-backed throne. It’s hard (but not impossible!) to identify an object just from its backside, and I started to look for other works by Preissler to see if he’d made any other studies of this figure. As luck would have it, the Binghamton Art Gallery has two drawings of the front and side.
These showed a naked child, holding one hand to his chest, and sitting on a throne shaped like a pair of lions. The Binghamton and Brooklyn drawings show a figure of the child god Harpocrates, and were probably copied from a small bronze statuette, like this Harpocrates now in Brooklyn (not the original of the drawings).
In Egypt children were shown with a long plaited side-lock of hair, sucking their index finger. Preissler has misunderstood Harpocrates’s gesture, and the curly end of his sidelock has been turned into a horn floating above his hand. His soft, podgy body and his inquiring face are also more Western than Egyptian in appearance. Preissler didn’t make a straightforward copy of a the bronze figure, but turned Harpocrates into a flesh and blood sketch that looks almost like a study from a living sitter. I wonder if he actually arranged a model in the same pose as the bronze, or if this was all done from the original figure?
Thanks to museum displays and over two hundred years of Egyptological research, we’re now familiar with the basic conventions of Egyptian art: we can easily recognize what makes an object look Egyptian. The drawings show Preissler confronted with an unfamiliar, peculiar object from a far-off land, and struggling to understand and describe it. His puzzlement and wonder are still visible—and contagious—nearly 300 years later.