The Arnauts were Albanians, but usually the term was used to mean an Albanian soldier, an irregular soldier in the Turkish army. They were identified by their pleated skirts, somewhat of a national Albanian costume. After Egypt became independent from Turkey, there were evidently plenty of them in Cairo who earned a living by various jobs: as guards, animal keepers, and models for foreign painters.
Gérôme's first oriental costume picture was of an Arnaut in bright sunlight with a rifle on his shoulder, leading a corvé of recruits across the desert, perhaps for service in the army or for work on the Suez canal. It is carefully painted, with strong plein air effects -- particularly complex on the Arnaut's skirt; for this difficult effect, Gérôme worked from a photograph of the skirt shot on a sunlit roof, perhaps that of his own house.
Gérôme's most important teacher was Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), who was a supreme master of the problems of stance, posture, placement and contrapposto. Delaroche taught Gérôme how to see and project the frame and muscles under the skin and clothing of figures to show the tensions of the inner balance that supported a pose. It is that developed talent which underlies the strong presence of the Arnaut in this picture. From the 1870s single-figures in Oriental costumes and settings becomes a steady part of Gérôme's production, many with Arnauts and their fancy skirts.
In its simple, straightforward subject matter -- with neither a story nor a moral -- this is a modest work; but it perfectly illustrates the attention to detail that defined the artist as an 'ethnographic' Orientalist painter, and has a strong psychological tension that animates the still but proud stance of the soldier. The tension starts in his cautiously forbidding expression through the near insolence expressed in his face and posture: one arm akimbo, the other with the hand managing both the leashes of the obediently sitting dogs, as well as the arrangement of weapons threaded through his leather belt holster. These include a rifle, a pistol and a sheathed, ivory-handled sword. All three of these, like the skirt, are familiar properties in Gérôme's studio collection, with loving attention paid to their silvered decorations and the glints of light along their lengths. The costume gets great attention too; the white shawl banded on the soldier's head, the buttons down the front of his blouse and, especially fine, is the depiction of tassels on the right side of his neck: intricate, transparent, tangled, and space-building, but so dainty as to belie the man's toughness. Good humour as well as skill was necessary in keeping them ahead of the collar and the top of the blouse.
The dogs are fine too. The foremost white whippet has bushy hair, painted deftly, lock by lock. The black whippets coat is shiny: the feet and legs are the result of careful observation and study. There is a breed of Sloughi or Arabian (sighthounds) in North Africa; and others in Northern Europe. Since the dogs were used in many paintings, these were probably private pets of Gérôme, and probably of a Northern European breed.
The Arnaut with two Whippets is a splendid painting; in it, one sees Gérôme at his happiest, and in the tassels, at his witty best. In this painting depicts his favourite subjects: animals, costumes and weapons -- and he does so flawlessly. By painting in studio light he avoided the strong contrasts of shadows which might distort forms; and by very subtle changes in values, he kept the subject round and solid. The background is a wonderful example of control -- detailed, but with subdued tonal values which build a separate space behind the figure, contributing to his substance.
We are grateful to Professor Gerald Ackerman for writing the above catalogue entry.