"The Western waves of ebbing day
Roll'd on the glen their level ray;
Each purple peak, each flinty spire,
Was bath'd in floods of living fire;
But not a setting beam could glow,
Within the dark ravines below."
- Sir Walter Scott
The view is taken from "La Barranca del Deseirto", near the Toluca Road, above Sante Fé: in the distance, the Mountains of Iztaccihuatl, and Popocatepetl are seen, with the inferior Volcanos, and the Lake of Xochimilco.
A sketch for the present picture (with minor variations including a group of figures in the left foreground in place of the deer), signed and dated 1838 and measuring 13½ x 17.7/8in. (34.3 x 45.4cm.) was sold at Christie's New York, 21 November 1988, lot 5 ($24,000).
The sketch was identified in the New York catalogue as the picture exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1838, but the scale of the present oil suggests that this is Egerton's exhibition piece of 1838.
It is one of the artist's largest Mexican subjects and stands alongside 'The Valley of Mexico', another large canvas, exhibited in London in 1837, as one of the artist's masterpieces. For this latter picture, now in the collection of the Banco Nacional de México, S.A., see the exhibition catalogue Viageros Europeos del Siglo XIX en México (Casa de América, Madrid, March-May 1997), Mexico, 1996, fig. 201.
The son of an Anglican priest and a pupil of Thomas Monro, Egerton worked as a copyist and caricaturist, exhibiting at the Royal Society of British Artists from 1824. By 1831 he had separated from his wife and set off for Mexico where he worked for five years, returning to London and exhibiting thirteen Mexican oils and watercolours from 1836-8. He published an album of twelve Views of Mexico after his drawings in London in 1840 which reveal he travelled widely in the country during his stay. He returned to Mexico with a new companion, Agnes Edwards, in 1840 and settled in the village of Tacubaya above Mexico City. The artist and his companion were murdered by bandits in April 1842 on the outskirts of Tacubaya.
Egerton's 'The Ravine of the Desert' is one of the artist's most deliberate essays in the sublime and picturesque, incorporating the theories of Burke and Gilpin which informed the work of so many English artists and writers at this time, and for which the vast and wild landscape of Mexico provided a perfect model.
For a similar view, from the southern part of the valley of Mexico looking to the east, see Rugendas's oil sketch 'Los volcanillos de Chalco con el lxtaccíhuattl y el Popocatépetl al fondo' of 1832 (Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, inv. 15740).
We are grateful to Dr. Pablo Diener for his help in preparing the above catalogue entry.