Charles Gleyre’s journey from Rome to Sudan and back to France via Beirut lasted over three years and was undoubtedly the adventure of a lifetime. Its wonderful intensity, which was simultaneously dazzling and nightmarish, made it an exceptional experience which set him apart from his fellow artists. In the 1830s, even the most daring among them neither ventured beyond the confines of Greece, which had just thrown off the shackles of Ottoman rule, nor beyond the Turkish coast and the North African countries colonised by French troops. Gleyre’s epic journey therefore had little in common with the comfortable diplomatic mission which Eugène Delacroix had accompanied to Morocco two years earlier.
Weary of languishing in obscurity in Rome, Gleyre entered the employment of the wealthy American traveller and philanthropist John Lowell Jr. in April 1834. Lowell paid his protégé’s expenses in exchange for sketches of the archaeological sites they explored and the costumes of the people they met. Gleyre initially shared his patron’s enthusiasm and produced stunning watercolours of sites ranging from Pompeii to Luxor, but the increasingly exhausting and dangerous conditions on the journey, punctuated by dysentery, sunstroke in 45°C heat in the Nubian desert, and a serious eye infection sapped the young painter’s strength and morale. Aware that he was putting his career in jeopardy by following this man who laughed in the face of death, Gleyre left his patron’s employment in Khartoum after eighteen months on the road. Lowell died six months later in Bombay. Gleyre risked life and limb on the journey back to France, which took over two years.