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The Queen of Sheba
John Duncan, Ivory, Apes and Peacocks, a watercolour
The Queen of Sheba became a modern icon of female power and beauty and has been the subject of a number of films, the most popular, Solomon and Sheba (1959) starring Yul Brynner as King Solomon and Gina Lollobrigida as the Arabian queen.
This watercolour, by the Scottish Symbolist John Duncan, is one of the most flamboyant representations of the Queen of Sheba in the twentieth century and blends together the familiar themes of Orientalism, eroticism and history. The bare-breasted Queen sits cross-legged in a palanquin, high atop an elephant's back; her skin is as white as the elephant's tusks or the bleached peacocks strutting alongside her colourful train, and her long hair is golden-blonde.
The title is taken from the Old Testament description of Solomon's navy of Tharshish, which ‘once in three years came ... bringing gold, and silver, ivory and apes, and peacocks' (1 Kings 10:22).
The watercolour was first exhibited in the annual exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh in 1923. At the same time, a play written by Jonkheer Six called The Queen of Sheba was performed in Amsterdam. Surviving production photographs of this show the actors costumed in swathes of uncut fabrics (Indian shawls and saris), not unlike those worn by the figures in Duncan's watercolour.