Émile Prisse d’Avennes, ARAB ART, Arabische Kunst, L’Art arabe.
Reviewed by Briony Llewellyn and Mercedes Volait

Émile Prisse d’Avennes, ARAB ART, Arabische Kunst, L’Art arabe. Essay by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom. Taschen, 2010. ISBN 978-3-8365-1983-0

L’Art arabe d’après les monuments du Kaire depuis le VIIe siècle jusqu’à la fin du XVIIIe by Émile Prisse d’Avennes, was published in four volumes by V.A. Morel in Paris between 1869 and 1877. Its 200 chromolithographs, depicting in extraordinary detail a large range of Islamic religious and domestic architecture and decoration, predominantly from Egypt, were a remarkable technical achievement. No less impressive were the 300 pages of text comprising a detailed chronicle of the geography, history and monuments of Egypt from the Arab conquest to the French invasion in 1798, as well as descriptions of the individual buildings and artefacts chosen for the plates, carefully classified to show the artistic development of each group. The publication seems to have been well received, notably at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1878, but does not appear to have achieved the success or widespread influence of Owen Jones’s earlier Grammar of Ornament, published in London in 1856. In recent times the decorative quality of the plates has prompted a revival of interest and, in addition to a facsimile edition of the entire work, published in Beirut in 1973, selections from it have been reprinted by publishers in Paris, London, Cairo and New York. This latest contribution is a splendid and well-produced volume, with high calibre colour reproductions of the complete plates of L’Art arabe, and extracts from the accompanying texts.

The Mausoleum complex of Tarabay al-Sharifi, chief of the Mamluks under Sultan al-Ghuri, early 16th c.

The Mausoleum complex of Tarabay al-Sharifi, chief of the Mamluks under Sultan al-Ghuri, early 16th c.

These plates and their explanations were based on Prisse’s extensive and thoroughgoing observations made during his many years of residence in Egypt. Between 1827 and 1844 he worked first for Muhammad Ali as an engineer and teacher, and then independently, exploring the country’s ancient monuments along the Nile as far as Nubia. Dressing and living as a Muslim, and having mastered both classical Arabic and the local dialects, he was well placed to study and understand Egyptian society. At the same time he knew and exchanged scholarly expertise with other long-term foreign residents, but only a few of these equalled his ability so effectively to cross the cultural boundaries between East and West. His friendship with the young Welsh scholar and traveller, George Lloyd, seems to have stimulated a more systematic study both of medieval Islamic art and architecture and of contemporary culture inEgypt, resulting eventually not only in L’Art arabe, but also in the less ambitious but equally significant volume, Oriental Album: characters, costumes and modes of life in the Valley of the Nile, published in London in 1848.

The plates, accompanied by extracts from the text written by James Augustus St John, are also reproduced in this Taschen publication, bringing together for the first time into one volume Prisse’s work both as an Arabist and as an ethnographer.
The plates in both volumes are the results of Prisse’s collaboration with other artists, a complex process that has not yet been fully disentangled. They reflect his considerable skills as a draughtsman, but also his reliance on early photographs of Egyptian monuments. When he returned to Egypt in 1858-60 for a second visit, Prisse brought with him not only the young Dutch artist, Willem de Famars Testas, but also a photographer, Edouard (baptised Anasthase) Jarrot. The work produced by all three men, as well as material from other sources, is contained in the extensive holdings of his papers at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and is currently undergoing research. The institution’s recent exhibition and accompanying book, Visions d’Égypte: Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807-1879), highlighted not only the range of Prisse’s considerable achievements, but also the multiplicity of components from which his publications were derived.

Some of the context from which Prisse’s L’Art arabe and The Oriental Album evolved is outlined in the introductory essay by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, although little use seems to have been made of the BnF archive, admittedly not easily accessible, except on microfilm. Reference is made to his use of both Arabic and European sources for the text of L’Art arabe, but there is no mention of the work of the most authoritative French scholar of Egyptian history at the time, Jean-Joseph Marcel, for whose Égypte, published in 1848, Prisse co-wrote and illustrated the section, Sous la domination de Méhémet Aly. The plates in The Oriental Album may not convey the realities of poverty, disease and industry in contemporary Egypt, as the authors suggest, but some of the images are in fact the same as those published the previous year in Le Magasin Pittoresque, where Prisse’s accompanying text makes the harsh conditions of rural life quite clear. Sous la domination de Méhémet Aly is also very critical of the despotism of the reigning dynasty. Why Prisse’s British publisher, James Madden, chose to use text written by St John, rather than Prisse’s own, is a mystery not addressed by Blair and Bloom.

As well as these omissions, there are a few inaccuracies. While Girault de Prangey’s early daguerreotypes taken in Egypt during the 1840s were among the sources for L’Art arabe, Prisse did not own them; instead his publisher acquired the stones used for the lithographs in de Prangey’s Monuments arabes d’Égypte, de Syrie et d’Asie mineure (Paris, 1846), and re-used them. The date of the Sotheby’s sale after Prisse’s death was 1879 not 1878, and David Roberts was in Egypt, 1838-39 (not 1840).

In some instances, the plates are presented in a confusing order: Plate 25 is placed before 23, Plate 30 is after 31, Plate 48 after 49, etc. A further inconsistency relates to the identification of the monuments depicted by Prisse in L’Art arabe. While current nomenclature is given for several of the buildings and their decoration, shown in the plates, the authors do not say that the Dawud Pasha mosque (mentioned in the caption for Plate XLIII) is in fact Malika Safiyya, or that Qawam al-Din (Plates LXIII-LXVI) is now al-Sayfi Sarghatmish al-Nasiri, or that one of the panels from the latter, depicted by Prisse (Plate LXVI) is still in situ, while the other has been removed to the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo (inv. MIA 2785, see The treasures of Islamic art in the museums of Cairo, 2006, p.122), and is a rare piece, remarkable for its iconography.

This is a missed opportunity, for while the authors make interesting observations on several of the objects (on which they are recognised experts), details such as this on the buildings (by a specialist in the field of Cairene architecture), would have made this publication of infinitely more value to scholars of Islamic art. With such an investment in the quality of paper and reproduction, it seems a shame that this is not matched by the extra research required to compare Prisse’s plates to existing monuments, and to assess the changes that have taken place since he depicted them.

Briony Llewellyn and Mercedes Volait

Caroline Williams has provided the following addenda:-
The illustrations in this book are beautiful and valuable documents. They would have been more usefully served by informed annotations. To the list of inconsistencies in the Llewellyn/Volait review, I would add the following:

Plates XIX-XXII are listed as the Funerary Mosque of Qaytbay, but this listing is true only of Plate XIX. The other plates belong to the Madrasa-Mosque located near Ibn Tulun. Plate LXXXIX shows the minbar belonging also to this Mosque-Madrasa.

XXIV identified as Tomb and minarets in Turab al-Imam and minaret of Jami` al-Qalmi are in reality the minaret of al-Sultaniya, and the tomb of Amir Tankizbugha in the cemetery area much nearer to the Citadel than the tomb of Imam al-Shaf’i, and the Minaret of the Mosque of Qaragoga al-Hasani off Sharia Port Said.

XXV Minaret of Mosque of al-Nasriya, 15th century. This is a puzzling identification for its style and date.

XXVIII Tomb attributed to Mahmud Janum is today identified as Barsbay al-Bagasi, 1456.

XXX The text states Jami’ Sinaniya was “built near Damietta”. The mosque is in Bulaq.

LXVII gives confusing identifications for the mosque: Sisariya (English); Sidi-Sariya (German); Sysaryeh (French).

LXXXIII Maristan Hospital. Why not Hospital of Sultan Qalawun?

XCVI and XCVII have their texts reversed; and surely the door of Sidi Yusuf’s house is wood, not bronze.

Plate C For Sidi Yusuf Ilmaz the identification should read Amir Ulmas al-Hajib, 14th century.

Caroline Williams

Briony Llewellyn adds:-
The Prisse d’Avennes papers at the Bnf consist of 18 bound volumes of notes and drawings (including press cuttings, notes and pages taken from printed books, annotated print-outs of his publications, unpublished travel notes, working notes for his books, etc.), a notebook listing his drawings and photographs, and 1948 prints, drawings, photographs and 831 squeezes arranged in 22 boxes and 2 rolls. Call number: Nouvelles acquisitions françaises, 20416 to 20449.

Detailed inventory at:

Briony Llewellyn