North Africa and the Middle East held a magnetic appeal for European and American travelers throughout the nineteenth century. The poems of Byron and Keats as well as the paintings of Delacroix and Ingres served only to heighten the prospects of Oriental journeys that were both perilous and sensual. For the lover of the historic past, there were cities and ruins at least as ancient and mysterious as those of Greece and Italy. Damascus, Thebes, Constantinople and Jerusalem were only a few of the legendary places required of the serious traveler. Among the visitors to these shrines were a number of American landscape painters, beginning with Frederic Edwin Church, who in 1868 made them the subject of a six-months tour.
In 1869, perhaps inspired by his friend Churchs example, Sanford Gifford went on a nearly identical trip. However, instead of alighting in Egypt for only a few days, as Church had done, Gifford made it the focus of his first three months abroad, including on his itinerary a lengthy boat trip along the Nile. "On the Nile, Gebel Shekh Hereedee" was one of only eight paintings that Gifford later completed from the sketches he had made during this journey. His Egyptian paintings were immediately praised by his contemporaries as being definitive examples of the artists mature style. With their elegant simplicity of design, measured proportions and refulgent color, they seemed perfect expressions of Giffords poetic temperament.
Holly Edwards has recently noted that Gifford's paintings of the Nile transpose the Luminist sensibility to the riverine landscape beautifully, capturing the limpid clarity of Egypt in nearly abstract terms. Stunning renditions of atmospheric conditions, these paintings distill the visual data of exotic locale into minimal oscillations of light on the horizons (Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1879-1930 [Williamstown, Massachusetts: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2000], p. 148).