Sara Ann Freeman Clarke, a Boston painter, was a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and was considered to be a transcendentalist herself. In 1883 she illustrated the book Summer on the Lakes, by Margaret Fuller. The artist is known for being a traveler and the images of her trips throughout the United States and Europe were widely shown in the Boston area during her lifetime. A Triptych of Egyptian Ruins was possibly inspired by the artist's travels to North Africa. The triptych, framed and encased in an ornate presentation cabinet decorated with hieroglyphics, illustrates the fascination with ancient Egyptian culture in the late nineteenth century.
The triptych is composed of various images of Eyptian tombs. It has been speculated that the central painting depicts the temple of Ptah at Karnak, erected by the king Ptolemy (III) and his queen Berenike (II). The painting at left is a fanciful rendering of the interior of a tomb with a broken head and miniature stone figures which appear to be shabtis (servants for the dead) strewn in the background. The painting at right depicts what may be a royal tomb from the Valley of the Kings.
The frames around the paintings of the triptych are adorned with symbols and cartouches (royal names of pharaohs that are encircled by a knotted rope as a symbol of encircling protection) that further embellish the artist's Egyptian conceit. The frames adorning the left and right paintings have inscriptions referring to Ptolmey III and Berenike II. The frame around the central painting contains the symbol of a winged solar disk which is the royal sign of Egyptian pharaohs' divinity.
The presentaion cabinet further compliments the paintings and their frames. Various hieroglyphics adorn the presentation cabinet, which hold the three paintings. Rendered very clearly and precisely, the closed doors of the presentation cabinet contain symbols of gods and goddesses such as the goddess Mut, consort of Amun-re, at Thebes and Amun-re, the king of the Gods, lord of Thebes.
In A Triptych of Egyptian Ruins, Clarke has created a profound work apparently celebrating the Ptolemaic-Roman period in Egyptian history.