Portrait of Giovanni Belzoni, “The Great Belzoni”


Portrait of Giovanni Belzoni, “The Great Belzoni”

1824 Netherlands

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Biographical references
- Who Was Who in Egyptology, Dawson & Uphill, Third Revised Edition edited by Morris Bierbrier, London, 1995
- Stanley Mayes, The Great Belzoni: The Circus Strongman who Discovered Egypt's Ancient Treasures, London, 2003

Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823), an Italian excavator, explorer and adventurer, became one of the giants of 19th century Egyptian archaeology. Born in Padua into a poor family, he went to Rome at the age of sixteen in order to seek his fortune. It is said that he studied hydraulics at this time and was preparing to enter the Capuchin order when the French entered the city. After travelling throughout Europe, he worked as a strong man at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London and married Sarah, his constant companion until his death. He travelled in Portugal and Spain and in 1814 met Muhammed Ali who suggested that he should go to Egypt. He was introduced to Henry Salt, the British Consul in Egypt, who subsequently employed him to collect and arrange the removal of certain antiquities for the British Museum. Belzoni transported colossal pieces under seemingly impossible conditions, one of these being the granite head of Ramesses II (British Museum). He visited Nubia and Aswan and conducted excavations at Karnak and on the west bank at Thebes. He then excavated and recorded the monuments at Philae and continued work on the reopening of the temples at Abu Simbel. In all, he discovered six royal tombs in the Theban area, the most important being that of Sety I, in which he and his wife lived for a time. The alabaster sarcophagus of Sety I, a pharaoh of the 19th dynasty, (John Soane Museum) is regarded as one of the most important objects ever found in Egypt. He opened, in 1818, the pyramid of Khafre and identified the site of the Ptolemaic port of Berenice on the Red Sea. He returned to England in 1819 and in 1821 mounted an exhibition of his discoveries at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. He also prepared the text of the “Narrative”, his best known work, for publication. A portrait medal of him was issued in 1822 and his collection of antiquities was sold in London at this time. He was unable to secure funding for further work in Egypt and, instead, set out on an expedition to discover the source of the Niger River. He died of fever, en route, in Benin, as he was trying to reach the mysterious city of Timbuktu. Sometimes maligned as a tomb robber, Giovanni Belzoni is perhaps the most important and yet least remembered explorer and archaeologist of the last two hundred years. Belzoni was the first person to penetrate the heart of the second pyramid at Giza.

The painter Jan Adam Kruseman received his first lessons in Haarlem, and, having been a pupil of his uncle Cornelis Kruseman in Amsterdam he went to Brussels where he entered the studio of Jean-Louis David. He then went to Paris where he stayed until 1825. He was a portrait painter, but he also painted historical, biblical and genre scenes. Kruseman received many prestigious portrait commissions and his skill in rendering the texture of fabrics contributed to his considerable reputation. From the auction of his estate it appears that Kruseman greatly admired the work of Sir Thomas Lawrence, owning a number of prints after his paintings. Among Kruseman’s many pupils were David Bles and Jozef Israëls. A number of his drawings are in the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam. He was the second Director of the Koninklijke Akademie in Amsterdam from 1830 to 1850 and was a founder-member of the Amsterdam artists’ society Arti et Amicitiae.

The two men may have met in Paris in 1822, where Belzoni set up an Egyptian exhibition in order to sell the remains of the objects he collected during his travels in Egypt the years before. As Belzoni died in 1823 it can be assumed that his portrait remained in Kruseman’s studio. It might have been exhibited by the artist in the Hague in 1823 under the title “A barbarysch mans portret”.

As befit its colorful sitter, this remarkable portrait is idiosyncratic. It shows Belzoni with his right arm uncovered to indicate his great strength. This may relate to his time as a showman at the Sadlers Wells Theatre, as well as his capacity of moving the heaviest of Egyptian statues, thanks to his knowledge of hydraulics. Belzoni wears an oriental costume and at the centre of the composition his bejeweled hand might be bearing the ring that was given to him in St Petersburg by tsar Alexander I.

Three likenesses of Belzoni are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery: a painting attributed to William Brockedon dated circa 1820 and showing him wearing a turban; a drawing also by William Brockedon; and an engraving by James Thompson after an unknown artist and dated 1822 that features Belzoni with a beard and mustache, wearing a turban and exotic clothes.

The John Soane Museum will hold an exhibition dedicated to Belzoni in 2015.
Height 85.00 cm (33.46 inches)
Width 70.00 cm (27.56 inches)
Signed and dated 1824 on the right along the edge of the canvas
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