French Treasures from Cairo

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A rare collection of French masterpieces that many art historians had thought were lost forever went on show at the Musee d'Orsay and proved one of the biggest attractions in Paris.

This collection of French art from the nineteenth century from the museums of Cairo was formed after the First World War. It was then - in 1919 - that Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil and his French wife started to acquire paintings, drawings and sculptures on the Parisian art market; they also loaned fifty-two works in 1928 to the Exhibition of French Art in Cairo where the works included four Monets, four Pissarros, two Sisleys and a Toulouse-Lautrec, which are part of the Paris show. This exhibition of French art from Egypt was organised under the auspices of the Association Francaise d'Action Artistique (formerly known as the Association Francaise d'Expansion et d'Echanges Artistiques), at the request of the Societe des Amis de l'Art, created in Cairo in 1923, the year that Fouad became king of Egypt. The president of this society was Prince Youssef Kamal, founder in 1908 of a school of fine arts in Cairo and himself a collector of important works of Delacroix such as Bouquet of Flowers in a Stoneware Vase and Courbet's The Spring which, after the revolution of 1952 came into the Egyptian national collection. After the death of Khalil in 1953 his European collection was bequeathed to the Egyptian government by his French wife and housed in the Guezireh and Mahmoud Khalil Museums and the residence of the Manial Palace.

Among the 120 paintings, sculptures and selected drawings are a few works never before shown in public, notably a version (about 1825) of La Grande Odalisque by Ingres, a watercolour by Gustave Moreau, Salome in the Garden, Sisley landscapes and above all many well known works of which all trace had been lost, works by Courbet, Daubigny, Millet, Monet (an astonishing Head of a Wild Boar) and Degas (a moving Self Portrait from his youth).

One of the most celebrated works is La vie et la mort (Life and Death) by Gauguin, dating from 1889, which, surprisingly, has never previously been exhibited in Paris.

Contrary to what you might expect the exhibition does not comprise predominantly oriental works - a wide range of subjects are represented from landscapes and genre scenes to portraits and still life works, in particular flowers, and even some religious subjects by Delacroix or Puvis de Chavannes. This choice reveals a wholly didactic concern to offer young artists the best examples of the art of the past.

In discussing the vast panorama of nineteenth century French art on view it is hard to know where to begin but let's start with Ingres and one of the biggest surprises in the show - Portrait of Isaure Leblanc. This delicate and luminous portrait of a five-year-old girl, with an angelic expression, her head turned to one side, puts an end to an enigma facing art historians, namely that the picture was thought to have disappeared. Ingres' portraits are generally associated with the works he painted of his parents which are now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Nobody knew if Ingres had represented Isaure Leblanc as a child in Florence in 1823 or at the time of her marriage in 1834. This tableau reveals the answer.

In contrast there is Monet's disturbing Tete de sanglier (Head of a Wild Boar) which is signed and dated Sivry, January 4, 1870. Sivry is a village in the Seine-et-Marne region near Melun, close to the forest of Fontainebleau and the inscription reveals that Monet had the opportunity to paint at close hand this head of a wild boar, brought back from a hunt and cut off with a large carving knife. The beast was possibly destined for the approaching New Year festivities. The subject is exceptional in the work of Monet and makes its point while avoiding the bloodier aspects of the slaughter. Here it is man, not animal, who is the beast in the saga and Monet's obvious distaste for the human desire to kill for sport is conveyed in the subdued, lifeless tone of the composition. …