LONDON - On 8 April 2014 in London, Sotheby’s will present The Orientalist Sale as part of Sotheby’s Orientalist & Islamic Week. The auction comprises masterpieces by leading European and American Orientalist painters, including Ludwig Deutsch, David Roberts, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Etienne Dinet and Frederick Arthur Bridgman, as well as select works of sculpture.
The genre of Orientalist art has undergone a revision in perception over the last thirty years. Orientalist paintings are today coveted by collectors and institutions in the Middle Eastern and North African region, for whom they offer fascinating glimpses into their countries’ history before the widespread use of photography and when representative painting was little practiced by local artists. Western nineteenth-century artists travelled to the East from across America and Europe with an agenda: to try and capture the ‘Orient’ faithfully in order to enlighten their audiences at home and to raise the bar for themselves, not only in terms of their reputations but also the self-imposed challenge of painting sites, cultures and the intense desert light few had experienced before. The resulting European representations of the ‘Orient’ (the nineteenth-century descriptor for Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt, and North Africa), far from being the visual embodiment of an exoticising, colonialist agenda, were faithful depictions of the sights that many of the artists experienced first-hand.
Claude Piening, Sotheby’s Head of Orientalist Paintings, said: “Orientalist art was very much an art for Western consumption when it was first produced. What’s interesting now is how that consumption has moved toward the very countries that are depicted in the paintings. We have seen the rise of collectors, both private and institutional, in North Africa and Egypt, the Gulf and the Middle East generally, and this is what has contributed to the current strong market for Orientalist art.”
David Roberts (British, 1796 – 1864) toured the Near East in 1838, focusing on Egypt and Palestine. On his travels, he produced hundreds of detailed drawings and sketches of the mosques and bazaars. The Bazaar of the Coppersmiths, Cairo, painted in 1842, depicts a very real place in time, specifically the façade of Sultan al-Ghuri’s mausoleum (est. £600,000-800,000).
Austrian artist Ludwig Deutsch (Austrian, 1855 – 1935) regularly travelled to Cairo from 1883 and he too captured the essence of the city on canvas. In his monumental 1909 work The Procession of the Mahmal through the streets of Cairo (est. £1,000,000-1,500,000), Deutsch records in extraordinary detail an event central to Muslim life, the Cairo departure of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The composition captures a fleeting moment and is notable for its spontaneity. The camel-borne mahmal, the elaborate coffer containing the Koran that accompanies the pilgrims to Mecca, is glimpsed on a crowded narrow street. The sheer size of the canvas – 284 by 294cm – signifies a conscious celebration of this event.
The French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824 – 1904) made Egypt a central theme in his oeuvre. He first travelled there in 1855-56 and returned several times. The Orientalist Sale features one of his Egyptian subjects, a close-up portrait of an armed solder wearing an ornate and minutely observed tribal headdress. A Bashi-Bazouk, estimated at £180,000-250,000, combines a meticulous approach to detail with a devotion to ethnographic accuracy. Gérôme was accompanied on his journeys by photographers Auguste Bartholdi and Albert Goupil, whose documentary photographs aided him in his quest for verisimilitude in his paintings.
The art of American painter Frederick Arthur Bridgman (American, 1847 – 1928) invited contemporary comparisons with the Orientalist paintings of Gérôme, Bridgman’s teacher and mentor in Paris in the 1860s. Bridgman would even become known as 'the American Gérôme', due in no small part to his archaeological precision and ethnographic subject matter, inspired by numerous trips to Egypt and North Africa. The influence of Bridgman’s academic training under Gérôme is still clearly visible in the earlier of two works by the artist in the sale, Idle Moments (1875, est. £50,000-70,000, formerly from the collection of Andy Warhol, illustrated left); while Le jour du prophete à Blidah, en Algerie, painted in 1900 and showing a group of Algerian women gathering for the Muslim feast of Mouloud, on the anniversary of the birth of the prophet Mohammed, reflects his freer, more naturalistic later style (est. £70,000-90,000). At the turn of the 20th century, the artist was at the height of his fame and fortune. He had been awarded his third silver medal at the Exposition Universelle in 1900 and his work was sought after by collectors and institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Etienne Dinet (French, 1861 – 1929) took his desire to immerse himself in Muslim culture to an unprecedented level in order to better understand and portray it. The French painter took his commitment to the people and places of Algeria very seriously, moving to the country and living the life of Islamic North Africa. He spoke Arabic fluently, and in 1913 converted to Islam, changing his name to Nasreddin (‘Defender of the Faith’). In 1929, alongside his friend Slimane Ben Ibrahim, Dinet went on the Hajj. Two important works by the artist are included in the sale. Le Conciliabule depicts a group of tribesmen planning an ambush by firelight (est. £400,000-600,000); and Jeunes filles à leur toilette (est. £250,000-350,000) shows two girls decorating one another with henna dyes. Both paintings illustrate the life of the local people as observed by a westerner who had become part of their world.
*Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale will take place in London on 9 April 2014.