Today I found myself in the wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to some of the European Masters. And speaking of Masters, during the 19th Century, artists in Western Europe began to grow out of the Romanticistand Pre-Raphaelite styles of art, and began to take an interest in more exotic topics, locales, and subjects. This style or school came to be called Orientalist Art. Centuries before, when the Moors had made incursions into Spain, they left an architectural and artistic imprint on Spain and by extension, via travelers, the Continent.
With Northern Africa relatively nearby, or even directly nearby, the 19th century artists headed for Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, as well as Libya and Egypt by ship. Those who were less courageous left Europe behind as they made their way overland to Turkey and points further East and South. Terms like casbah, souk, and harem fascinated and thrilled the Western Europeans.
Folks, I too was thrilled when I got my first taste of North African and Arabian culture by means of this Art known as Orientalist. May I share some of my favorites with you? Our first painting is called The Pyramids Road — Giza, and was the work of Edward Lear.
This painting was done in 1873. Lear was the 20th of 21 children, and was a master of beautiful line work which nothing to do withhim having a long line of brothers and sisters . Note the detail of the trees. The trees were in fact planted by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, at the celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1868.
Two of Lear’s contemporaries were Jean-Leon Gerome and James Tissot. Gerome is the more famous of the two and his work is extraordinary. His works are large in scope and yet are able to capture the smallest of the defining differences which is why we, as people, look different. Above is a painting called Egyptian Recruits Crossing The Desert. Below is Arabs Crossing the Desert. These troops didn’t get to the killing fields in Humvees. They walked.
While Gerome was capable of portraying troops on the move, he was also attracted to women, that is, women bathing. Below is Bathsheba. While rooftop bathing is no longer in vogue, watching women bathe still is. Note the guy up on the balcony upper left.
Above is Terrace of the Seraglio; here Gerome trots out a whole stable of bathing beauties. But wait – there’s more. Old Jean-Leon was obsessed with women who were squeaky clean. He adored watching them taking a soak. Below is yet another of Gerome’s bathing beauties, otherwise known as women with soap. It is called Moorish Bath.
James Tissot was a Frenchman. Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, civil unrest and communal fighting caused Tissot to flee Paris for his life. He went to England and became a successful artist, painting café society and social gatherings.
Tissot’s life again began to unwind when his mistress, Kathleen Newton, died at 28 from TB. Despondent and devastated, his career path next led him to the Holy Land. This painting (above) is called The Journey of the Magi. Look at the stones in the road, and the magnificent color of the Magi’s robes.
The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is the remnant of the Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed by the Babylonians eons ago. In this painting above you can see how the wall was rebuilt, how the stones don’t match exactly. Likely they were in different locations in the original structure.The artist, a German named Gustave Bauernfeind, called this painting Lament of the Faithful at the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. This painting symbolizes an architypical vision imperfectly rebuilt, which might be a metaphor for the human condition.
But Bauernfeind was talented. His superb Street Scene, Damascus (above) might not remind you of your neighborhood, but it is a neighborhood in detail right down to the cat and dog eye-ing each other.
Our next painting is called Pilgrims Going to Mecca and was created in 1861 by French artist Leon Belly. You can almost smell the camel dung. While the subject is the journey of the massed faithful to the Islamic Holy City Mecca, Artist Belly included Joseph, Mary, and the infant child Jesus, in the work to show the universality of religion. Universal is right, as I see this art as the inspiration for Cecil B deMille’s crowd scene of the Hebrews fleeing Egypt, in his epic film, The Ten Commandments.
Finally, we are on the home stretch. This next painting (above) is called The Reception. Painted by an Englishman, Frederick John Lewis in 1873 it gives us a peek inside a harem. Harem life had many elaborate affairs and rituals. For our purposes, all we need to know is that a harem is where the Pashas, the El Jeffes and other Sultans and Sheiks kept their women. Look at the intricate designs in the mosaic tiles surrounding the pool, as well as the symmetry of the design in the latticework and window coverings. This Harem was truly a beautiful room worthy of its beautiful occupants.
Just three more. Above is View of Cairo by who else, Jean-Leon Gerome. While you can’t see the shimmer of the heat in the painting you can certainly imagine it.
Next is Gerome’s view of the wailing Wall that we showed you above. This painting is called Soloman’s Wall.
Our last painting doesn’t portray men at war, or beautiful women. Instead it is Gerome’s painting called Prayers on the Housetop (below) which contains the essence of the beauty of spiritual nature.
Speaking of beauty, this is a natural point to close out this month’s Art & Culture lesson. You won’t have to travel to Instanbul, Cairo, or Damascus to get a glimpse of more art treasures like these. Nor will you need to spend a day in a museum or on a camel. The path to great art, oriental or otherwise, is is often found right here on our pages The Arts, a sometime garden of visual delights.