A desert landscape with travellers passing through the Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra

A desert landscape with travellers passing through the Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra - Huile sur toile signée

Lot n° 243

It seems that Hilaire never actually travelled to Palmyra. His composition, though a faithful topographical depiction of the Valley of Tombs, is almost certainly based on the work of another Frenchman, the artist Louis-François Cassas (1756-1827), who visited the site in 1785 and made an exact drawing. Apart from the group of four columns that Hilaire transferred from a different area in Palmyra to fill the left-hand side of his composition, the only point at which he strayed from archaeological exactitude, the Valley of the Tombs, is shown exactly as it would have been. In the picture, the different funerary towers can be identified, and were erected by wealthy patrician families in the 1st Century AD, the most important of which were the towers of Elahbel, Jamblique and Khitot. 

In addition to his topographical interest, Hilaire evidently wished to portray the exoticism and picturesque nature of the scene, with the two caravans crossing one another, one coming from Baghdad and the other from Damas. Prefiguring the taste for Orientalist painting that flourished in the nineteenth century, Hilaire took great delight in carefully detailing the accoutrements and accessories of the caravans and the travellers, animating the Valley of the Tombs with abundant life. 

At the end of August 2015, the three main funerary towers in the historic Palmyra site were wilfully destroyed by an explosion, obliterating some of the most precious monuments from this antique city. In the present work Hilaire thus unwittingly passed on to posterity an important and moving depiction of this lost cultural heritage.