HOW THEY SAW THE COPTS: “UN POÈTE – LES COPTES DANS LA HAUTE EGYPTE, 1874 (A POET – THE COPTS IN UPPER EGYPT, 1874)” BY THE FRENCH PAINTER, HENRIETTE BROWNE
Sophie de Bouteillier (1829 – 1901 AD) is known by other names, Sophie de Saux and Nee de Boutellier, but she is better known by her pseudonym, Henriette Browne. She was a French painter and etcher who exhibited at the Salon, in Paris, and the Royal Academy, in London, and was famous for her religious and Orientalist works. She was wife of the French diplomat Henry Jules de Saux, who was secretary to the famous 19th century French politician Count Alexandre Walewksi, who served his country as foreign minister for some time. Walewksi is known to have visited Egypt in 1840 AD.[i] Most probably his secretary Henry Jules de Saux took his wife, Henriette, and accompanied the Count in his visit to Egypt. This seems to be the way Henriette came in touch with Egypt and the Copts.
Henriette Browne has several paintings of Egyptian theme. One of these is Coptic: Un poète – Les Coptes dans la Haute Egypte (A poet – The Copts in Upper Egypt). The work of art is dated 1974 AD; however, it must have been based on an original work from the year Henriette visited Egypt with her husband; i.e. from 1840 AD. That is the time Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1848 AD) was ruling Egypt and Patriarch Peter VII (1810 – 1852 AD) was head of the Coptic Church.
The work, which was put on sale by Christie’s London in 2000 for 15,000 – 20,000 GBP (USD 22,772 – 30,362,[ii] is oil on Canvas and with dimensions of 62.2 x 72.4 cm (24.5 x 28.5 in.). It is dated and signed.
The painting depicts two Coptic men from Upper Egypt at their home. We don’t know where exactly in Upper Egypt, but it may have been from Luxor, Asyut, Sohag, or Qena – I think they were most probably from Luxor, a town many European travellers visited to see the Pharaonic sites of ancient Thebes. The two men, who are sitting on a long bench, are most probably father and son. It seems that the father is dictating a letter, or something, to his son, who is using a wooden pen, and keeps the ink pot sitting on the bench on his left side. A few paper works lie on the bench. One can see the beautiful carpet and the oriental coffee table with a coffee pot sitting on it. Although the title of the painting is “Un poète”, I tend to think these two were clerks, from the class of the educated Copts who were good at writing, maths and accounts-keeping, the class on which the administration of the state depended to a large degree. On the wall is hanging a poster on which is written in beautiful Arabic script the Coptic trinitarian phrase “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; One God. Amen.” Underneath that, one can discern the words “yaso’a al-mase’ih”, the Arabic for Jesus Christ.
An accurate painting, as this one is, can be used by historians to study life and conditions of peoples in particular periods. One can see very clearly the dark dress code of the Copts, including robe and turban. One can also see the fabric belt the older man wears. This is the code of dress (ghi‘yar غيار) which was imposed on Copts by Muslim authorities to differentiate between Copts and the Muslims, and to enable the latter to mistreat and keep Copts in their “proper place”. As we said before in other articles, this changed only after the end of the Crimean War and the promulgation of the Hamayouni Decree by the Ottoman Empire, something which was done only after much pressure by the European Powers of the time, particularly Britain and France.
But this is perhaps one of the most beautiful, and I would add most accurate, paintings by any European artist in the 19th century of a Coptic subject. Copts would be advised to get a copy and hang it at their homes to keep reminding them of how things were, particularly ghi’yar and all that it represented and meant.
How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (29 January 2012), HOW THEY SAW THE COPTS: “Un poète – Les Coptes dans la Haute Egypte, 1874 (A poet – The Copts in Upper Egypt, 1874)” BY THE FRENCH PAINTER, HENRIETTE BROWNE, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/how-they-saw-the-copts-un-poete-les-coptes-dans-la-haute-egypte-1874-a-poet-the-copts-in-upper-egypt-1874-by-the-french-painter-henriette-browne/
[i] It is not clear for how long they stayed in Egypt.
[ii] http://www.artnet.com/artists/lotdetailpage.aspx?lot_id=D6C2C1652F9B11B4 It is not know how much it was sold for.