Forced to abandon two previous expeditions to Jerusalem due to disease and hardship, first in 1849 with his friend Thomas Cross and then in 1854 with the artist William Holman Hunt, Edward Lear finally arrived in the city on March 27, 1858. Lear's arduous attempts to reach Jerusalem proved well worth his efforts as his diary reveals a man deeply moved by what he found there. In one of his first reflections on the city, Lear wrote, 'We crossed the Kidron & went up the Mount of Olives -- every step bringing fresh beauty to the city uprising behind. At the top, by the Church of Ascension the view is wonderfully beautiful indeed' (Diary, 28, iii.58 in V.Noakes, Edward Lear 1812-1888, London, 1985, p. 149).
By 1858, Lear was a seasoned traveler-artist, having journeyed to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Albania and Egypt. He ventured to Israel on a commission from his patrons Lady Waldegrave and Sir James Reid. For Lady Waldegrave, Lear painted Jerusalem from the Mount of the Olives, Sunset (sold at Christie's London, July 29, 1977, lot 174). For Sir James Reid, a recently retired Supreme Justice of the Ionian Islands and Lear's neighbor when the artist lived in Corfu, he painted the present work, Jerusalem from the Mount of the Olives, Sunrise. After various failed attempts to find the best vantage point from which to sketch the city, Lear selected the Mount of Olives, which afforded him a clear panoramic view. As he wrote to Lady Waldegrave, from there he could see 'the site of the temple & the 2 domes,--and it shews [sic] the ravine of the valley of Jehosaphat, over which the city looks:--and Absalom's pillar--(if so be it is his pillar--), the village of Siloam, part of Aceldama, & Gethsemane...added to all which there is an unlimited foreground of figs, olives, & pomegranates, not to speak of goats, sheep & huming [sic] beings' (Letter to Lady Waldegrave, 27.v.58, in ibid). In addition to these pictorial reasons for choosing the Mount of Olives as his vantage point, the location's Biblical associations may have also been important to Lear as he wrote to his sister Ann that he had climbed 'to the spot Christ must have been on when he 'saw the city'--on coming from Bethany' (letter to Ann March 29, 1858, in V. Noakes, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, London, 2004, p. 133).
A self-proclaimed 'topographical artist', Lear was committed to accurately representing his subjects, to which this painting with its meticulous attention to detail clearly attests. Lear reportedly scrutinized a landscape with a monocular glass before assiduously sketching that which he saw before him. Upon his return to his home in Italy, Lear would then use his plein-air studies, executed in both pencil and watercolor, as the basis for his oil paintings. With regard to his preparation for the present work, Lear wrote that during the fortnight he spent camped on the Mount of Olives he 'drew all its details & came to understand its characteristics completely' (Letter to Lady Walegrave, May 27, 1858 op.cit. Noakes, 1985, p. 149). In addition, he purchased photographs of the view 'in order that I might do justice exactly to the scene' (ibid). Among the photographs which Lear may have purchased were Francis Frith's depictions of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (fig. 1). From 1856 to 1859, Frith made three trips to Egypt and the Holy Land; the photographs he produced from these travels were published in various formats and, rather ironically, directly competed with the work of topographic artists like Lear. By 1859, armchair travelers looking for representations of Jerusalem or other intriguing distant lands could purchase an image from Frith's photographic printing establishment with its vast archive of topographic views.
Lear's paintings of course offered more than the supposed faithful representation of a landscape found in photographs. Jerusalem from the Mount of the Olives, Sunrise merges scientific exactitude, that Lear professed 'had tired my sight a good deal' (Quoted in L. Strachey, The Letters of Edward Lear, London, 1907, p. 133), with romantic interpretation. Here the perennial nineteenth-century motif of the diminutive figure who beholds a vast landscape appears in the guise of two Arab men, one who faces forward and the other who sits with his back towards the viewer admiring the city below. The figures function as surrogates, inviting the spectator into the picture to contemplate along with them: Jerusalem bathed in morning's first golden light and the surrounding mountains that recede as purple and blue waves. We are called upon to sit on the Mount of Olives just as Lear did and to consider the view from his favorite time of day when 'Just before sunrise the view of the city is most lovely, all gold and white beyond the dark fig and olive trees' (Letter to Lady Waldegrave, May 27, 1858).