Masada was probably the painting that decided Edward Lear’s fortune as a painter, and its effect was far from positive; however, 11 February 1861 was a particularly happy day for Lear as the Times published a “favourable notice” of his “Rock Fortress of Masada, on the Dead Sea” then on show at the British Institution:
… for truth and conscientious work, perhaps the most noticeable thing in these rooms, is Mr. Lear’s large picture of the ‘Rock Fortress of Masada, on the Dead Sea’ (349). The time is early morning; from a foreground of arid cliff rise the yellow sandstone buttresses, on the very top of which stand perched the scanty ruins of the stronghold of Eleazar, overlooking the deep slaty blue of the plain that stretches to the Dead Sea, whose steely waters are backed by the wall-like mountains of Moab. Overhead is a limpid, gray sky, with a few wreaths of cloud.
“Exhibition of the British Institution.” The Times, 11 February 1861, 10.
Unfortunately, as far as I know, this was the only favourable review he had. That same day, The Morning Chronicle also published a review of the exhibition, by someone who evidently did not much appreciate landscape painting:
One large and ambitious landscape will force itself upon attention; it will not, we think, win admiration, although it is painted by a name which has always been associated with the idea of a highly-promising painter. “The Fortress of Masada on the Dead Sea,” by Edward Lear (349), is a painful failure, because the price set upon the picture (£525) shows that Mr. Lear looks upon it as an important work. It is one of those pictures in which art is sacrificed in the attempt to attain the absolute representation of a peculiar and arbitrarily chosen aspect of nature.
Upon the whole we are inclined to think that the most noticeable landscape in exhibition is the one by T. Danby, which we have before alluded to…
“Exhibition of the Works of British Artists at the British Institution.” The Morning Chronicle, 11 February 1861.
On 2 March The Illustrated London News also made a negative mention of Lear’s painting:
A large waste of canvas is that of Mr. Edward Lear’s, presenting a view of “The Fortress of Masada, on the Dead Sea” (349), and which is hung in the centre of one of the walls in the middle room, a place altogether unsuited for pictures of these dimensions. This old fortress, situated on an almost isolated rock of about 1500 feet in height, was built in the second century before Christ by Jonathan Maccabeus, and subsequently enlarged and strengthened by Herod the Great. After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus it was one of the last strongholds of the Hebrews, who, when at last obliged to surrender it, slew their wives and children, and afterwards themselves, rather than they should fall into the hands of their cruel enemies. The place has been ever since desolate, and, as may be judged by the nature of the site, presents few opportunities for the painter’s art. The picture consists of one huge mountain peak, backed by an indistinct blue expanse of sky and stagnant water, and in the foreground a mass of granulated iron, or volcanic rock. It is a pity to see time and materials misapplied to the extent they are here upon such a work.
“British Institution. [Third Notice.]” The Illustrated London News, 2 March 1861, p. 201.
The Saturday Review would also find the subject objectionable in its later notice of the exhibition:
“The Fortress of Masada, on the Dead Sea” (349), by Edward Lear, is a spot to which some memorable historic associations are attached. The word “Masada” is said in Stanley’s Sinai and Palestine to mean the lair, or fastness, and the place was so called as being emphatically the stronghold of the country. It was to Jerusalem what Königstein has been to Dresden in modern times ― an impregnable fortress to which the treasures were sent for security whenever danger was impending. Mr. Lear has conveyed with fine effect the singular and desolate aspect of the now unoccupied heights, and has introduced two figures, which are, we presume, intended to recal [sic] the time when a remnant of the Jews had taken refuge there from the armies of Titus. We cannot help thinking that these figures rather distract from the impressiveness of the scene by giving an air of unreality; and their historical propriety is at least questionable, as the summit of the hill was then fortified and surrounded with towers, so that the place cannot have had its present wild and deserted appearance…
“British Institution.” The Saturday Review, 6 April 1861, p. 341.