During the second half of the 19th century, Jean-Léon Gérôme was one of the most famous and influential academic painters in the world. After a trip to the Balkans in 1853, the artist developed an interest Orientalism which would continue through to the end of his career. He found the subjects of his dramatic Orientalist paintings in the course of numerous trips to Turkey, Egypt and the Near East, instilling the same passion for exploring these lands in his pupils at the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts, where he taught for nearly forty years. Gérôme’s Orientalist paintings, rich with detail like shimmering tilework, intricate costumes, and captivating settings and characters, were lauded as ‘ethnographic’ in their day because they presented the ‘Orient’ as Europeans expected it to be. In fact, while Gérôme himself tried to create the illusion that his paintings depicted people and events he had all seen and sketched firsthand, the artist’s actual working practice was far more complex and interesting, using a combination of witnessed events, photographs from his travels as an architectural reference, and acquired props and costumes which he worked from in the studio to complete these complex and dynamic works.
In 1857, on the eve of his departure for his first trip to Egypt and Asia Minor, where he travelled with the writer Émile Augier and the sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, Gérôme wrote in his journal: ‘Departure for Egypt. My short stay in Constantinople had made me hungry and the Orient was my most frequent of dreams. There was probably among my ancestors a Bohemian, because I have always had the nomadic temperament and the knack for locomotion. I'm leaving with some friends, I am the fifth, all of us light enough of money, but full of excitement ... We turn to Cairo where we will stay another four months in one of the houses that Soliman Pasha rented us ... Many paintings, more or less successful, more or less to the public’s taste, were executed in this stay on the banks of the Father of the Rivers’ (J.-L. Gérôme, Notes published in The Bulletin de la Société d'agriculture, lettres, sciences et arts de la Haute-Saône, 1980).
Gérôme also described how important these oil sketches en plein air were to him: ‘Even when worn out after the long march under the bright sun, as soon as our camp was reached I got down to my work with concentration. But Oh! How many things were left behind of which I carried only the memory away! I prefer three touches of color on a piece of canvas to even the most vivid memory, but I had to continue on with regret’ (ibid). Corps de garde d'arnautes au Caire was among the works painted in Gérôme’s studio in Paris drawing on his experiences in Cairo during this first trip. Gérôme had a keen eye for the differences in people's features and costumes and was deeply fascinated by the extraordinary ethnic diversity in the Ottoman Empire he observed during his travels. Of particular interest to the artist were Arnauts, ethnic Albanians who served as bashi-bazouks or irregular soldiers employed by the Ottoman army, and they appear in his paintings from this first voyage onward. They are identifiable by their pleated skirts, called fustanella, which are an element of Albanian national costume. The complexity and bright chromatic richness of their garb must have been particularly appealing to Gérôme as a master of detail, as their frequent recurrence in his paintings allowed him to demonstrate his skill at capturing the different textures and details of their costume.
Corps de garde d'arnautes au Caire is largely without narrative, depicting a contingent of Arnauts at rest in a partially-shaded doorway. This dramatic setting – with the arched entryway encircling the figures and the finely delineated recession to the brightly lit and wall and complex screen beyond creates almost a stage-like effect for Gérôme’s beautifully detailed figures. The standing Arnaut at left in particular is a tour-de-force by Gérôme. The artist’s ability, learned from his teacher Paul Delaroche, to express the physicality of contrapposto even under the complex costume of the Arnaut animates the still but proud stance of the soldier. The figure’s contemplative cross-body gaze, the complex foreshortening of his forward extending arm, and the intricate play of light and shadow over his pleated fustanella are all details that in the hands of a lesser artist might feel fussily handled. Instead, they form a harmonious whole which is enhanced by the attention lavished on the soldier’s costume - the colorful fabric wrapping around the soldier's head and the complex arrangement of the pistol, rifle and sheathed sword threaded through the figure’s leather belt holster. Contemporary photographs show models on the roof of Gérôme’s Paris studio wearing Arnaut costumes he had brought back with him from his travels, probably so that the artist could study the sunlight on these complex outfits directly (fig. 1).
The background is a wonderful example of the artist’s characteristic control – detailed, but with nuanced tonal changes which build a separate depth behind the figures, contributing to their substantive presence in the foreground. The handling of light is particularly elegant, both in the direct light seen on the walls in the background, and the way the reflected light illuminates the two rear-most figures, differentiating their silhouettes from the darker wall behind them. While the setting has been previously identified as the Bab al-Nasr (Gate of Victory), one of three remaining gates in the walls of the Old City of Cairo, it seems that the design of the doorway in the present work is more likely to have been inspired by the form of the gate rather than being an actual depiction of it. While the gate does feature a semicircular arch enclosing a rectangular passageway, neither the size of the doorway in the present work, nor the decoration and setting support this identification of the Bab al-Nasr. Still, Corps de garde d'arnautes au Caire remains a brilliant early example of the staggering ability of this true master of the Orientalist painters.
We are grateful to Graydon Parrish for confirming the authenticity of this work.
(fig. 1): Figure in the costume of an Arnaute, c. 1856. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.