A Trip Down the Nile with Helen Bigelow Merriman, 1875

By Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

“We are all individuals, and also parts of the human family, and our best life is found in the way each of these capacities illuminates and vivifies the other.” Helen Bigelow Merriman wrote in her Treatise Concerning Portraits and Portraiture in 1891.  

“Portrait painting has, after all, for its deepest secret, the same rule that lies at the bottom of all the best achievement in any direction, viz. Accept the Facts and then put the noblest possible construction upon them It is the power of forming an abstract idea of a person- of seeing him whole- as it were, apart from any trifling incidental variations-that marks the true artist.” (Merriman 1891) 

Helen Bigelow Merriman was born in 1844, the only child of Erastus Brigham Bigelow, founder of the Bigelow Carpet Company. Helen was raised in North Conway, NH, but later settled in Worcester and Boston, Mass. She returned every summer to her North Conway home, Stonehurst Manor. Helen was a painter, art collector, author, and a founder of the Worcester Art Museum along with her husband, Rev. Daniel Merriman, who served as the Worcester Art Museum’s first President. A visionary woman, Helen was also the founder and benefactor of the Memorial Hospital of North Conway, NH in 1911. (Sun 2011)  

A champion of the arts, and especially in promoting women in the arts, Helen was active in the Worcester Art Society. She spearheaded the new building of the Congregational Church, served on both the Committee on Instruction and on the Committee on the Museum at Worcester Museum of Art advancing the museum’s Education mission and expanding the collections, and served as President of the North Conway Public Library. 

In 1875, Helen took a trip to Europe and Egypt. She painted and sketched everything around her as she travelled, capturing the worlds and people she met with exquisite and intimate detail. Housed at the MHS, the Helen Bigelow Merriman collection of watercolors and sketches consists of 50 drawings and paintings and 1 albumen photograph from the trip.  The collection contains watercolors and drawings of people and scenes the artist saw on her journey down the Nile River, some of which were reproduced in her Figures drawn on the Nile. There are also English, Swiss, and Greek scenes, five lovely watercolors of birds, and an albumen photograph of a crayon drawing of a young woman, who might possibly Helen Bigelow Merriman herself. 

When I came across the drawings and watercolors from Helen’s journey down the Nile River, my heart stirred. Time stood still as I opened the box that unveiled image after image, transporting me across the globe, 150 years past. Eventually, I had to close the box and return it to its shelf. I descended back down in the elevator to the Library with a refreshed mind. After all, I had just taken a trip down the Nile with Helen Bigelow Merriman! 

Here are just a few of my favorite images. Let us begin with an image that simply has the word “Nile” written under this serene watercolor scene. 

Painting of Nile by Helen Bigelow Merriman
01.025 [Untitled, view of the Nile with three figures, one riding a donkey].
To continue our journey, let’s board our vessel.

common Nile boat
01.023 “Meerkeb” or common Nile boat.

Perhaps we will pass a house along the way.

Egyptian house
01.015 [Untitled, view of Egyptian house].
Next, we stop at the Temple of Karnak.

watercolor of Karnak Temple
01.017 [Untitled, Karnak Temple with figure of a man in front].
We might pass an oasis as we sail down the Nile.

01.027 Noonday [view of an oasis]
We end our journey with this breathtaking image of the eastern sky at sunset.

Camel train at sunset
01.003 [Camel train in the desert, Eastern sky at sunset]

“Although the artist is not properly a moralizer he gets from his art many side hints about very deep truths. I cannot help mentioning here a thought about immortality that has come to me very forcibly even in my small experience of portrait painting.

Our bodies become beautiful and natural only when they are transfigured by thought and feeling. The have in themselves only the most superficial kind of charm.

The outcome of all which is that if the body contributes so little to the highest beauty- if, in fact , it obstructs the highest beauty except as it becomes its unconscious instrument- then the mere loss of the body cannot take the highest beauty and truest life away from us.” (Merriman 1891)

With these words, I share the albumen photograph of a drawing of a young woman, possibly Helen herself, immortalized by her own art.

Photograph of a drawing
02.016 [Albumen photograph of a drawing of a young woman]
Learn more about Helen Bigelow Merriman by exploring these collections at the MHS:

Helen Bigelow Merriman collection of watercolors and sketches.

Figures drawn on the Nile. 1875.

Concerning portraits and portraiture / by Helen Bigelow Merriman; read before the Worcester Art Society, February 17, 1891.

Both sides : an address by Helen Bigelow Merriman at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the organization of the Central Church, Worcester, Massachusetts, October 15, 1895.

Merriman Family Papers, 1695-1902 (masshist.org)

Please contact the Library through email, phone or chat to inquire about these collections, as well as the other drawings in the collection.


Merriman, Helen Bigelow. 1891. Concerning Portraits and Portraiture. Worcester: Chas. Hamilton.

Sun, Conway Daily. 2011. https://www.mainehealth.org/Memorial-Hospital/About. November 3. Accessed 09 28, 2021. https://www.mainehealth.org/-/media/Memorial-Hospital/11-3-Memorial-100th-Supplement-FINAL.pdf.