LONDON - Every year the Middle East comes to Sotheby’s in the form of the exquisite and vivid paintings of the Orientalist school. Each seems to be a window on some aspect of life in the Levant, North Africa, Ottoman Turkey or other exotic location. This April's sale exhibition is no different. We are treated to captivating views and compositions, which hark back to a mysterious Orient, too languid and heat-stricken for the turbulence that seems to afflict it today.
Rudolf Ernst's The Captive Tiger, part of The Orientalist sale.
The paintings, often masterpieces of accuracy, set up a new standard of "imaginative realism." For viewers in London, it is a unique opportunity to understand the 19th-century European impression of this distant territory.
Claude Piening, head of the Orientalist sale, told me, "Now that the view has finally opened and all the paintings are united, it is fascinating to hear peoples’ reactions to them—for some, it is the familiarity of the views, as in the case of the panoramas of Istanbul with their topographical accuracy that is still recognisable today; for others it is the exquisite and painstaking detail with which the sitters and their accouterments are rendered, as in Ludwig Deutsch’s The Offering, or Ernst’s The Captive Tiger; and for others still, the verisimilitude of the scenes depicted, be it the act of worship in Rudolf Weisse’s A Moment of Prayer, or a day in the life of a madrasa in Konstantin Makovsky’s In the Classroom."
My own reaction has been to lose myself in these landscapes, and watch time standing still for a moment.