Conciliabule dans la nuit (The Night Conspirators) is an exceptional work. Firstly for its masculine subject matter: men bearing weapons are much less common in Dinet's oeuvre than his depictions of children and teenagers at play or at study (see lot 14), young girls amusing themselves, Ouled Naïl dancers and their lovers, and, in his later works, Islamic religious practice and the prayers of the faithful (lot 12).
The present work is also exceptional for the fact that it has not been seen in public since the 1924 Algiers exhibition, having remained in the same private collection since then. Scandinavian by birth, the work's first owner fell in love with Algeria and as an artist himself befriended Sliman Ben Ibrahim and Etienne Dinet, who had recently purchased a villa in Saint-Eugène in the outskirts of Algiers. There Dinet received the many private collectors and art lovers who came to select paintings still in progress. The present work was the only one representing Dinet at the Algiers exhibition the following year.
Quite what these five armed men are scheming over is left for the viewer to speculate. The work itself may suggest two different interpretations. The scene's secrecy and the intense concentration given by the spectators to their leader, who gestures with his hand extended towards them, leads one to suppose that the riflemen might be preparing an ambush. But the men might also be hunters preparing to attack a significant game animal. Setting the scene at night accentuates the mysterious aspect of the figures' meeting, and also provides a wonderful example of Dinet's chiaroscuro style, as he applies the techniques of classical painting to the study of desert life. Dinet meticulously studies the figures' expressions in this closely-cropped composition, showing his mastery in conveying the Bedouin soul.
The leader's facial characteristics are recognisable in other works by Dinet, notably in the watercolour Tête d'homme and in the oil Chasseur à l'affut dans les dunes. The same figure also appears in the large oil which Dinet titled Halte de révoltés (fig. 1). There the man is depicted similarly gesturing instructions towards his companions.
Such characters could be fighting against oppressors or enemy tribes, or simply be engaging in smuggling or banditry. It was the latter category which Dinet identified in a work of 1913 titled variously L'Embuscade, Contrebandiers or Les Guetteurs (Denise Brahimi & Koudir Benchikou, La vie et l'oeuvre de Etienne Dinet, Paris, 1984, no. 355), a variant of which appears in Dinet and Sliman Ben Ibrahim's book Khadra, Danseuese Ouled Naïl.
Depictions of hunting in the desert were important among the first painters of Algeria. It was depicted with great style by Horace Vernet and later Eugène Fromentin and others, with riders on horseback contributing a sense of nobility and drama to the scene. By the time Dinet painted the present work there were no longer lions in the mountains, but there was still a number of wild boar and panther. The men of the desert hunted ostrich, gazelle, and bustard, including in the environs of Bou-Saâda, the small oasis where Dinet made his home. In 1902 he painted Chasseur de gazelles, a version of which in watercolour is illustrated in his book Le Désert (p. 91). This small canvas, also known as L'Homme au fusil, was included in the Dinet retrospective at the Exposition coloniale of 1931.
Conciliabule dans la nuit is imbued with a particular atmosphere of nobility, the well-known realism of Dinet balanced here with the closely-studied expressions and atmosphere. In choosing the great desert stars as his backdrop, and situating his figures among scrub instead of the red rocks which appear in other artists' depictions of the desert, the poet of Bou-Saâda demonstrates his close interest in the scene depicted, and creates one of his finest works devoted to the men among whom he decided to make his home.
We are grateful to Marion Vidal-Bué for her assistance in cataloguing this work and for writing this note.