Painted in 1871 at the height of Gérôme's fame, Master of the Hounds depicts a strong and authoritative Bashi-bazouk in a lush forest clearing accompanied by his faithful hunting dogs. A reoccurring subject in Gérôme's oeuvre, the Bashi-bazouk (military reserve troops in service to the Ottoman Empire), became a symbol both of masculine fortitude and the exotic Orient that captured the imagination of the artist's French and American audiences. By the time of Gérôme's first eastern journey in 1856, Eugène Delacroix had already whetted the French public's appetite for pictures of these foreign lands. From 1832-1833, Delacroix had traveled to northern Africa; the paintings he produced from this sojourn abroad present a hyperbolically seductive, aggressive and even violent world, all executed with the artist's characteristic free brushstrokes and dynamic compositions. In contrast to Delacroix's almost manic representations of the Orient, Gérôme's work exudes a disciplined refinement that lent his images a seemingly greater degree of authenticity. Rather than the frenetic cavalrymen who people Delacroix's canvases, Gérôme's figures have a staid, regality to them, exemplified here by the Bashi-bazouk.
The careful attention given to the man's face and physical structure, evident in the preliminary drawing for the painting (fig.2), is a testament to the years Gérôme spent studying with his most important teacher, Paul Delaroche. Delaroche's dedication to capturing not only the posture and stance of a figure, but also the frame and muscles of the body beneath skin and clothing resonates here in the work of his student.
With its remarkable precision and compelling subject, Master of the Hounds is a quintessential example of Gérôme's oeuvre and embodies the words of the critic Edmond About, 'There is perhaps no artist as complete as Monsieur Gérôme. His talent is based on lengthy study. He has never exhibited a painting that failed to attest to both his original nature and his solid education'.
Similarly, renowned French poet, novelist and critic Théophile Gautier was equally struck by both the originality and astounding exactitude of Gérôme's painting, as he declared, 'His talent as a draughtsman -- refined, elegant, precise, yet stylish -- a special vision, which we shall gladly call ethnographic and which shall become increasingly necessary to the artist in this age of universal and rapid locomotion where every people of the planet will be visited, in whatever faraway archipelago they are tucked away: all this made him better qualified than others to render that simple detail that the modern explorers of the Orient have neglected up to now in their landscapes, monuments and colours -- that is to say: mankind!'.
Gautier's praise is particularly apropos of Master of the Hounds, in which Gérôme deftly renders his foreign subject with his distinctive, controlled brushstrokes that seem to elicit the true essence of the central figure's character.