The late nineteenth century saw both an unprecedented influx of imported goods into Cairo and a new appreciation of historical pieces, which had become the preferred souvenirs of European travelers. The still-life in the lower left features several of these objects, many of which would become favorite motifs of the artist, and would reappear in numerous compositions throughout his long and prolific career. A wooden table inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a gilt copper tombak (ewer), a misbaha, or string of prayer beads, Bedouin silver amulets, a silahlik (leather sash or tasseled cummerbund, here decorated with cowry shells), a finely carved pistol and janbiya (short dagger), and an overturned lantern from a mosque, with only some of its glass fittings intact, each demonstrate Deutsch's talent for depicting varied surfaces, textures, and patterns. To the right of this picturesque grouping, set against the mastaba or raised platform of the carved stone portal, is a sinter; Deutsch’s appreciation of musical instruments—fueled in part by the revival in Europe of historical music and a renewed interest in Dutch genre painting of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—would become another hallmark of his art.
Though Deutsch’s reliance on photographs for his detailed compositions—many of them purchased from the Cairo studio of G. Lékégian—and a virtual working library of props and souvenirs housed in his studios in France is well recorded, the early date of this painting suggests that it was based at least in part on sketches made on site. (Deutsch first traveled to Egypt in 1883, the same year in which The Della’l was painted.) The sense of immediacy and informality that results from this process is more pronounced here than elsewhere in Deutsch’s oeuvre; later pictures are marked by a haunting stillness alongside a nearly photographic clarity, creating works that are both psychologically penetrating and unexpectedly modern, in their similarities to a film or production still. (Deutsch’s seamless combination of the theatrical and cinematic with the chilling frigidity of a moment captured in time may have been partially indebted to the works of France’s greatest Orientalist painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme [1824-1904]. Indeed, Deutsch even retains here that artist’s archaic use of wooden panel, in order to achieve some of the saturated hues that Gérôme made famous.) These paintings, with The Della'l as their clear point of origin, would become highly influential, and would stand at the center of an entire school of Austrian Orientalism.
The profound meanings of Deutsch’s Orientalist paintings have often been ignored by art historians, glossed over and overshadowed by the sheer technical brilliance that is always on display. In the present work, Deutsch manages to create a deeply personal and surprisingly topical scene: As the della’l attempts to sell the finely wrought goods before him – a nostalgic tribute, perhaps, to handmade crafts, at a time when anxiety about industrialization was at its peak in Europe—so Deutsch was seeking to market his own, new subject matter and make a name for himself in the international art world. Deutsch’s success in this endeavor is evidenced by the provenance of the painting – two of New York’s most notable dealers, Goupil and Albert du Vannes, at one time possessed this work.
Deutsch entered the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna in 1872, and settled in Paris in 1878. There he befriended other Orientalist painters, including Arthur von Ferraris (1856-1936), Johann Discart (1856-?), and his lifelong friend Rudolf Ernst (1854-1932). After studying with the history painter Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), Deutsch traveled to Egypt. His four excursions to that country, in 1883, 1886, 1890, and 1898, inspired hundreds of images of Middle Eastern life, which were exhibited to great acclaim at the Salon from 1881 forward. (Inspired by the success of his mentors and colleagues, Deutsch began his Orientalist career even before his first forays abroad.) 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 World War I 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 had become renowned, and the looser brushwork and more highly keyed palette of Post-Impressionism.
This catalogue note was written by Dr. Emily M. Weeks.
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