The Colossus of Memnon 1858

Since 1350 BC, the Colossi of Memnon have stood guard at Thebes’ ancient necropolis. They were purposely formidable, standing at a towering height of 18 metres, and would have created a significant impact on any visitor. Gérôme painted the subject several times, including a view from the side in The Colossi of Thebes, Memnon and Sesostris (1856, Musée Georges Garrett de Vesoul), Caravan Passing the Colossi of Memnon, Thebes (1857, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes), and an oil sketch of the current view, Memnon and Sesostris (1857, Musée des Beaux (1856, Private Collection). The current work, which depicts camels resting beside Memnon’s colossus, is missing the third of the original composition, which was recorded in the Gérôme Paris Photographs at the Cabinet d’Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (vol. IV, no. 10) and exhibited as Memnon et Sésostris at the Salon of 1857. Because the signature and all other elements match identically with the original shot, it’s possible that the current image is a cut-down version of the former (omitting the portion with a view of the Sesostris colossus); alternatively, it might be a second version of the larger composition.

This painting was created following Gérôme’s first ambitious and long-awaited tour to Egypt in 1856, a journey that began “with friends, being one of five – all of us with little money and abundant spirits!” as Gérôme himself describes it. From Damietta to Philae, we rented a sailboat and spent four months on the Nile, hunting, painting, and fishing… We returned to Cairo and slept in a residence in ancient Cairo that Sulieman Pasha had rented to us for four months” (as stated in Ackerman, 1986, p. 44).

“Several landscapes drawn on the experiences of this voyage were displayed” in the Salon of 1857 in Paris, according to Ackerman.

The intensity of the drawing, the strength of the touch, and the lack of polish give the impression that the painting was done on the spot or on the houseboat where the painter kept his studio. The brightness of the light makes it appear as though it was painted in an instant in response to Egypt’s dazzling light, with little regard for aesthetics. Only a few of Gérôme’s Egyptian paintings have the impression of being created on site, such as this one.”

Object Details

The Colossus of Memnon 1858

Jean-Leon Gerome



oil on canvas

65 x 81 cm. (25.6 x 31.9 in.)