Exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1881, Camels beside a cistern helped Weeks establish himself as one of the preeminent painters of the Orient. In this work, as the author of the Weeks' estate sale catalogue explained, 'A group of Moorish camels are shown peacefully partaking of a meal of straw spread on an old blanket, while a keeper, squatting in their midst, watches the progress. On the left two standing camels are seen quenching their thirst at the well' (F.D. Millet, Catalogue of Very Important Finished Pictures, Studies, Sketches and Original Drawings by the Late Edwin Lord Weeks, 1905, lot 267). Inspired by Weeks' intrepid travels across Morocco in the 1870s, Camels beside a cistern is the third and last of the artist's monumental tributes to his years spent in northern Africa. The two earlier works, Camels embarking on the beach of Salé Morocco (fig. 1; Christie's, New York, 25 October 2006, lot 30, $531,2000) and The door of the ancient 'Fondak' in the holy city of Salé Morocco, had been exhibited to great acclaim at the Paris Salon of 1880. Weeks' vivid depictions of Morocco's barren deserts, expansive sky, exotic bazaars and its Moorish population captivated a public eager to know these distant foreign lands.
While painted in the comfort of his Paris studio, these large-scale works capture an immediacy and intimacy of life in an intriguing, far- away world. As though painted right there in the blazing sun of the Moroccan desert, Camels beside a cistern shows the light striking the head of the man seated at right, the straining muscles of the man bending over the well and the multitude of colors in the coats of the languid camels and the sandy earth. Camels and their attendants were a particularly favored subject of Weeks'; his dedication to studying the physiognomies of both man and beast is evident here in the detail with which he renders the concentration of not only the seated man but also of the camels immersed in their noonday meal. The careful attention given to the mouth, teeth, nose, eyes and even eyelashes of the camels at right that chew their hay while examining the viewer reveals the hand of an artist who has spent hours observing these animals in their natural habitat.
Above this resting caravan, a cloudless cobalt sky stretches across the canvas, covering fully half of the composition and creating a sense of the desert's intense sun at mid-day. This striking light, brilliant coloring, and most significantly, the immediacy of the scene became the hallmarks of Weeks' work and the foundation for his later explorations of India that brought him further acclaim.
We are grateful to Dr. Ellen K. Morris for her assistance with the resarch for this catalogue entry. This work will be included in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist.