- Ludwig Deutsch
- The Treasure Chest
- signed L. Deutsch and dated 1920 (upper left)
- oil on panel
- 27 1/2 by 21 3/8 in.
- 69.8 by 54.2 cm
Dr. J. W. Edgar, Hamilton, Ontario (acquired from the above in April 1928 and until 1939)
Thence by descent through the family
Robert Balfour, North Burlington, Ontario (acquired from the above, 1982)
Thence by descent
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In The Treasure Chest, painted late in Deutsch’s long and prolific career, two men are silhouetted against a dramatic architectural background of marble and inlaid stone. The patterned dado is typical of late (Bahri and Circassian) Mamluk madrasas in Cairo, when it was customary to forego interior stuccowork and unadorned or modestly decorated surfaces and panel the walls with wide expanses of ornate polychromed marble. Here the practice has presumably been adapted to a palace or other secular space; both men wear crimson babouches, or Moroccan leather slippers, which would, in accordance with Muslim prescriptions, have been removed prior to entering a mosque or religious school. The standing figure, dressed in a sumptuous silken qumbaz, dangles from his fingers a finely carved anklet and hegab (amulet). These examples of Bedouin jewelry may have been drawn from Deutsch’s own collection of exotic souvenirs, gathered during one of his three (possibly four) excursions to Egypt in the 1880s and ‘90s and housed in his studios in Paris (11 rue Navarin) and the South of France. Certainly they were a favorite motif of the artist’s, as the jewelry reappears in several of Deutsch’s earlier paintings – as does the distinctive profile of the standing man himself. An unseen light source on the left hand side of the composition illuminates this figure’s broad forehead and thin, aquiline nose and accentuates the sophisticated styling of his garments: his delicately embroidered yellow-gold turban is expertly wrapped and his cotton and silk scarf, the broad striping of which suggests that it was woven on a treadle loom by the men of Kerdassa, or one of the other small weaving villages near Cairo, is artfully folded and draped across his shoulders.
With his hand on his hip, his eyes downcast, and his expression both contemplative and aloof, this man provides a striking visual counterpart to the kneeling Nubian figure at his feet. Presumably a servant, his eyes are also lowered, though this time out of deference. He holds a Persian or eighteenth-century Turkish tombak in his hands. Its gleaming surface echoes the bright, almost metallic striping of his robe and its vertical form offers, along with the erect and aristocratic posture of his supervisor, a point of contrast with his own, hunched form. Atop the man’s head is a red fez or tarboosh, a symbol of the Tanzimat, or period of progressive reforms in the Ottoman Empire after 1829 (such topical references were characteristic of Deutsch’s Orientalist paintings, and set them apart from those of many of his contemporaries). Beside him is an eclectic still life, which, in typical Deutsch fashion, creates in the composition a picturesque vignette all its own: there is an opened wooden chest, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, an embroidered hizam or belt encrusted with stones and featuring an extraordinarily large buckle, a necklace, and a small elevated box, also clad in mother-of-pearl. The decorative details of these objects are as complex as their origins: Indo-Portuguese, Lebanese, Egyptian, Turkish, Persian, and Bedouin accessories jostle for place atop a rug of Northwest Persian origin. The specificity of each item’s surface and patterning, and again, the recurring role of many of them in Deutsch’s cinematic compositions, may point to Deutsch’s own personal collections of artifacts and objets, but it may also owe something to the numerous ethnographic sketches that Deutsch made during his travels and to the vast photographic library the artist had assembled by the 1890s. (Many of Deutsch’s photographs were purchased from the Cairo studio of G. Lékégian.) Such sources were mined relentlessly by Deutsch throughout his career, in order to achieve a collage-like arrangement of perfectly realized parts, expertly woven together into a seamless – and thoroughly convincing - whole. (In Paris, Deutsch even sought out Nubian or Sudanese models and dressed them in the clothing he had purchased abroad when his sketches and photographs failed him.)
Deutsch’s hyper-realistic style earned him immediate praise – well beyond his native Austria - and an enduring place in Orientalism’s upper echelons. Brought up in Vienna, he studied at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste before moving to Paris in 1878. There he befriended other Orientalist painters, including Arthur von Ferraris, Jean Discart, and his lifelong friend Rudolf Ernst. Though very little is known of Deutsch’s biography, there is evidence of his tutelage by the French history painter Jean-Paul Laurens, and his participation in the Salon des Artistes Français from 1879 to 1925. (His first Orientalist works appeared in 1881, well before his first recorded trip to Egypt.) In 1898, Deutsch earned an honorable mention at that institution, and, in 1900, he was awarded a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Later he would receive the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
In 1919, Deutsch gained French citizenship and, after a brief absence, began exhibiting again at the Paris Salon under the name “Louis Deutsch.” (It is assumed that Deutsch left France during the First World War due to the official hostilities between France and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He may have ventured again to North Africa.) In an effort to stay current and revive what was now proving to be a waning genre, Deutsch’s style in the years after 1910 flirted between the highly detailed technique for which he – and several other Orientalist painters – had become renowned, and the looser brushwork and more highly keyed palette of Post-Impressionism. The Treasure Chest, painted in the midst of these experimental years and just one year after his official recognition as a French citizen and his reentry into the Salon, returns decisively to the realism of Deutsch’s earlier years, and to the mode preferred by France’s greatest Orientalist painter, the late Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Indeed, Deutsch even retains here his rather archaic use of wooden panel, in order to achieve the saturated hues and intense colors that Gérôme made famous.) In this possible tribute to a French master, Deutsch creates a deeply personal and, ironically, profoundly modern scene: the painting shifts from a well-painted still life to a convoluted psychological journey. As the standing figure in Deutsch’s work considers the material goods before him, and as Deutsch himself seems to reflect upon his own beloved souvenirs, travels, influences, and career, we too are compelled to meditate on the substance and the meaning of the artist’s introspective scene.
The Treasure Chest came into the possession of the well-known dealer J. A. Cooling & Sons shortly after its completion in 1920, and was among the earliest pictures purchased by Dr. J. W. Edgar, who began collecting artwork in the 1920s. The original receipt for this transaction is in the possession of the present owner, whose family hung Deutsch’s work in the place of honor in their home, over the fireplace.