Painting After Photography: Nicola Saig, the American Colony Photo Department and the Art of the Copy in Palestine’s Early Twentieth-Century Art World

The article explores the informal interplay between local artistic trends and foreign artistic entrepreneurship in early twentieth-century Palestine by investigating the relationship between the artworks of Nicola Saig, a renowned Christian Palestinian icon painter, and the American Colony Photo Department (ACPD). The ACPD operated as a commercial enterprise of the American Colony, a Swedish-American Christian sect in Jerusalem which dominated the commercial production of allegorical biblical scenes. Saig frequently copied the Colony’s hand-colored photographic export items for his first experiments with oil on canvas painting. Moving away from the qudsi (“Jerusalemite”) style of icon painting through the Evangelical aesthetics of the ACPD’s photographs, Saig’s paintings disclose the transformations in artistic practice engendered by the rapidly changing communal and political fabric of late Ottoman Palestine. Despite a lack of written evidence linking Saig and the ACPD, their artistic dialogue provokes an examination of how the process of copying from photographs (and not just the technology of photography) was, in itself foundational to Saig’s transition from icon to genre painter and is a potent index of Palestine’s developing art world of the early twentieth century.

Image: American Colony Photo Department, 9 December 1917, Surrender of Jerusalem, glass, dry plate negative, 4 x 5 in, 1917. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection, LC-M31-1831.