Artwork of the month
Spotlight on museum number 31-10-1
Oil Painting of Ur
It’s not often that I can discuss an oil painting that relates to the site of Ur, but this month I’m doing just that. In the 1930-31 season, the Woolleys received a distinguished artist guest, one Joseph Lindon Smith. Mr. Smith was by this point a long-standing painter of ancient art and architecture, having worked in Egypt since 1904. At that time, he met Phoebe Hearst, who bought his early paintings of Abu Simbel (for an example see this link). His autobiography (Tombs, Temples and Ancient Art, actually finished after his death by his wife and published in 1956) covers this seminal event in his career, and the book as a whole is both informative and entertaining. Most of it concerns Egypt, but Smith devotes about ten pages to the Ancient Near East. This section is largely about his trip to Ur.
Smith decided to take a trip to Iraq after hearing Woolley speak in New York, and after long discussions with George Reisner at Harvard Camp in Giza about whether Egypt or Sumer was the older civilization. At Ur, Smith was particularly interested in the “Flood Pit”, also called simply Pit F, a deep pit Woolley cut from the surface nearly 20 meters down to virgin soil. This effort was described as “going down through nine strata of civilizations before reaching the original marsh, the “bottom” of Mesopotamia” (Smith 1956: 239), so it could speak to the antiquity of the civilization.
Thus, in December of 1930, Joseph Smith and his wife, Corinna, made the trip to Damascus, then Baghdad and finally Ur Junction near Nasiriyeh. Woolley showed them around the site with his usual panache. Smith (1956: 242) commented: “I tried to keep pace with his imagination in visualizing the buildings in their former magnificence, ornamented with gold plaiting and mosaics in lapis lazuli and gold.” He said the amount of excavation around the Ziggurat was put into perspective when Woolley told him that in 1923 it was possible to ride on horseback to the top of it.
Smith’s book doesn’t say exactly when he painted the pit, but a letter in the Penn Museum archives dated February 1, 1931 from Joseph Smith to Horace Jayne, then director of the museum, tells of his return to the US from Iraq. It also tells of his desire to bequeath the painting to the museum, after a one month showing in Boston. He had spent ten days with the Woolleys and says: “During our most interesting visit there I painted a study of the shaft he cut two years ago leading down to the flood level, and I offer this record to the Pennsylvania University through him.”
A letter dated March 21 tells of the arrival of the painting after its Boston showing. It thanks Smith for the gift and says: “It is not only a strikingly beautiful painting but as an archaeological document it is, of course, to us intensely interesting.” Indeed, color renderings of archaeological excavations were extremely rare in the days of black and white photography. One of the strengths of Smith’s career was that he could offer these color images, particularly of Egyptian tomb paintings where so much color was preserved on opening new tombs.
The Ur painting appeared as the frontispiece to the April 1931 issue of the Museum Bulletin, but at some point in its later history it was consigned to archival storage. The head archivist, Alex Pezatti and I dug it up, so to speak, recently for a look at yet another surprising artifact of the Joint Expedition to Mesopotamia, another piece in the record we are reconstructing in the Digital Ur Project to arrive at a Virtual Vision of Woolley’s Excavations.