The present lot is one of Jean-Léon Gérôme's masterpieces, painted when the artist was at the height of his powers. He portrays a touching moment of a man playing with his dog. A young Arnaut -- an Albanian soldier in the Ottoman army -- sits with his whippet on a divan in a room with a tiled dado. The Arnaut has drawn from the hookah, and playfully blows a stream of smoke at the whippet's nose. Although this may at first seem to convey cruelty, considering modern attitudes towards smoking, it is clearly meant as an affectionate tease. The hound is attentive to his master, while the Arnaut carefully returns his dog's gaze, the arch of his shoulders leaning towards the animal, again affectionately, the smoke binding them together as much as if they were touching each other (one side of the triangle they inhabit is amusingly outlined by the stream of smoke). The incident is further characterized by the convincing expressions on their faces: the man's puffed up cheeks, and the puzzled apprehension of the dog as the smoke tickles his nostrils. Gérôme manages to present the moment without sentimentality; neither gesture nor expression is exaggerated enough for the action to overshadow their mutual respect.
Gérôme himself was fond of dogs; the whippet was probably one of his pets, for it appears in several pictures from this period and in many drawings (fig. 1). The Arnaut wears a favourite garment from Gérôme's costume collection: the pleated Arnaut skirt, which the painter never failed to draw and paint freshly throughout his life, always with a different fall of the pleats, and different modulations of light and shadow on the multitudinous folds. Surrounding the man and his dog are innumerable examples of Gérôme's skills as a painter, and his exultation in deploying them.
This painting astounds with its technical brilliance. The extensive tile dado covers the wall behind the soldier and the dog, each tile reflecting in turn differing highlights and colour values; those on the right wall are seen in very accurate foreshortening. The pillows of the divan upon which the pair sits are covered with a decorated fabric whose intricacies of pattern enticed rather than frightened the painter as he brought them out of shadow into full light. And to the right, a small table cornered into near darkness sports a mosaic mother-of-pearl frieze whose gently glittering tesserae are another example of the painter's mastery of light values.
The still-life of two vessels and a cup are exquisitely painted, but they and the tray are so correctly drawn and coloured that they stay in their place in the soft, indirect light of the room. In fact, the splendid foreshortening of the tray, done without ostentation, sets up the space for the whole painting; the tray is, in effect, our entry into the room where the master and his dog sit. Examine the area around the tray and the still-life of vessels upon it: it is an area seemingly insignificant or unassuming, but painted as if it could be the most important passage in the composition; every object is correctly drawn, and accurately placed in clearly defined space and light. On top of the exact placement of the tray and the objects and drapery upon and around it, the sumptuous colouring -- especially of the drapery over the tray, and the open space under it -- is rich but well-behaved: everything stays in its place, building an almost palpable space. This area is a stunning example of Gérôme's skill, and his modest deployment of them. Throughout the painting, we can sense his joy in painting.
The provenance of this painting is impressive. It originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson Coolidge who was the United States Minister Plenipotentiary to France for a short time in 1892 and 1893; the painting stayed in the family until 1996. Coolidge acquired most of the paintings in his collection in Paris while he was Minister, although early records indicate that this painting was handled by Knoedler in New York City in 1892.
Another painting by Gérôme entitled Arnaut jouant avec un lévrier was sold for Ffr. 2600, according to L'Art français of 14 February 1890; this was at a charity auction for the painter Benedict Masson (1819-1893), who was, like Gérôme, a student of Paul Delaroche (1797-1856). Both the small price and the fact that it was contributed to a charity auction would lead to the conclusion that if it were the same subject as the painting offered, it would be a smaller version, and probably the preparatory oil sketch for the present work; it has not been located. This version was sold by Goupil for Ffr. 26,000 -- ten times the price of the sketch.
We are grateful to Professor Gerald Ackerman for writing the above catalogue entry.