82 Orientalist paintings will be on sale in London next Tuesday, with works that vary in subject matter as well as in the countries that inspired Russian, American, French, English, Italian, Hungarian and other artists.
Compared to others, the catalogue – which you can see here – gives no further explanation of the paintings, in many cases you have to delve into the biographies of the painters to try and guess whether you are in Morocco or not.
Here is a selection of an old-fashioned artistic genre, made of romanticism as much as of imagination, of the “picturesque” but also of a true love for these countries, where some of these artists spent several decades of their lives.
If the world they show us has largely disappeared, erased by modernity, there are still details, art, objects and colours that make us say, suddenly, that this is Morocco. For others, we hesitate, we feel we are on familiar ground, but are we in Morocco, elsewhere in the Maghreb, further afield in the Levant?
In the 19th century and even at the beginning of the 20th century, Morocco was much less open to foreigners than other countries of the Maghreb or the Middle East. Going down south of Marrakech was difficult, even dangerous, a journey that some people made in disguise… and despite what some people think, only a few travellers were able to discover these Siba lands (!). Tangier was already an open city, Europeans were allowed to reside in certain cities, to trade, among other things. But the relative rarity of paintings that are certainly Moroccan can be explained by this difficulty of access.
Thus “The Charge” by Adolf Schreyer, at the top of the page, is most certainly an Algerian show. Not a war scene, there are no weapons and the costumes are too beautiful for the battlefield, not a fantasia either since there are no visible rifles… Before settling in Paris, Schreyer went to Algeria in 1861, but never set foot in Morocco. Just like Fromentin’s “La Halte dans le désert”, it is impossible to locate.
They are rarely posed paintings, but painted in the studio, based on memories and sketches brought back from a trip. The human image remains taboo for many Muslims (one only has to remember the scandal of the Moroccans when the sultan Moulay Abd El Aziz took up photography under the direction of Gabriel Veyre).
The Basket weaver, Tangier, by Jean Discart
This is not the case with my favourite painting in the catalogue. Behind the very French name of Jean Discart lies a painter with Italian and Austro-Hungarian origins. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna where he met Rudolf Ernst, another painter in the catalogue. He joined him in Paris before settling in Tangiers, where he produced numerous works between 1880 and 1920, while making regular visits to Paris and the Netherlands.
This is my favourite painting by far. It’s a scene you could still see today, maybe not in Tangier, but in a southern village. Those woven baskets, that hammered copper tray, those thick-soled yellow slippers can still be bought in the souk.
The quality of the portrait is incredible, with attention to detail, the shaved – or beginning to be bald – head, the almost cottony beard, the slight wrinkles and the man’s concentration on the reed braid he is making.
While the pot with the flower has clearly been added for the composition, and the painting may have been quietly placed in a house, it remains a testimony to a Morocco where one is nostalgically transported.
Still life with Moroccan objects, by Rudolf Ernst
Rudolf Ernst was a Viennese painter, friend of Jean Discart and his predecessor in France and Morocco.
I am less sensitive to the still lifes, but the delicacy and accuracy of the painting, even in the details of the beads embroidering the fabrics, are superb.
There are painted stuccos, a splendid fibula, a mother-of-pearl inlaid box, a hammered copper tray on which one could read the verses of the Koran (and which is decorated with a six-pointed star, as was done a lot at the time when the “Seal of Solomon” had not become a political emblem).
The whole thing is very harmonious and could serve as an advertisement for any Moroccan craft centre!
The Merchant, by Gyula Tornai
There is a lot of Morocco in this beautiful portrait by the Hungarian painter Gyula Tornai. He lived in Morocco for ten years, including a year in Tangier.
In any case, the small, richly decorated wooden table and the elaborate leather bag on his belt remind me of familiar objects. My father-in-law had a similar bag, which he kept carefully and where he stored his daily takings… And the signature of the painting mentions the city of Tangier!
At the Armourers, by Gustave Reynier
No indication for this painting either. Gustave Reynier is a little younger than the previous painters, and he painted works that represent Provence, Algeria or Morocco (“The Blue Minaret in Meknes“).
Many of the details here are Moroccan, starting with the zellige floor whose wear and tear is well rendered, the yellow babouches (again) and the objects hanging on the wall. The top of the room, with the thin windows instead of larger openings hidden by moucharabiehs, the glazed roof and the red headdresses are a little less so.
Let’s say we are in Al Andalusia…
The Guards, by Addison Thomas Millar
The same questioning applies to this scene depicting guards in front of a door, in a dead end. Its author, an American painter, went to Algeria, but there is no mention of a trip to Morocco.
The heavy double wooden door decorated with nails and a bronze hammer is familiar, as is the protective khamsa. A little less familiar is the stone-paved street, a little less the doorframe adorned with patterns a little different from those I saw in Morocco. The man’s slippers on the right are identical to Moroccan slippers, his red turban is not common here.
A prize saddle by Harry Humphrey Moore
There is no doubt that this is Tangier, in the splendour of a palace where a black man proudly presents a prize saddle. This American painter lived in Morocco for two years, where he painted many pictures.
This pricey saddle is a reward, probably after a fantasia. The man looks very proud in his green djellabah decorated with sfiffa (the little green buttons) and belted with red. He is dressed in a superb white burnous whose drape indicates lightness, a sign of quality. He has abandoned his slippers to climb a marble step, next to a small canal that will feed a garden, probably because he is preparing to climb higher, on the carpeted steps.
In his left hand he carries his ceremonial rifle, a sword with a richly worked hilt at his belt and, in his right hand, this magnificent saddle from which hangs a silver dagger, in the manner of those from Tiznit.
We do not know who he is. Probably a descendant of the Bukharas, the “black praetorians” that the sultans used from the eleventh to the early nineteenth century, refusing to put their security in the hands of the ever-rebellious tribes. He must be both an excellent horseman and a rich man to wear such opulent paraphernalia.