The Palace Guard
is a powerful and noble evocation of the Egyptian world which Deutsch had experienced for himself, in 1883, 1886, and 1890. A Nubian sentry stands guard before a palace entrance, his gaze alert yet that of a man at ease with himself, his stance stoic with muscles tensed, yet exuding a relaxed confidence.
Powerful in its overall impact, yet painstaking in its detail, the work bears witness to Deutsch's rigorous and highly accomplished technique. Although little is known of the artist's working methods, it is likely that only the use of a magnifying glass would have allowed the artist to achieve the extremely fine level of detail visible in the present work, with every link in the figure's chainmail individually rendered. This highly finished miniaturistic technique itself mirrors the exquisite Islamic craftsmanship of the various accoutrements worn by the guard.
The guard wears a Safavid gold-overlaid steel helmet of the type made in Persia in the eighteenth century, along with a Safavid arm guard or Bazuband
. In his breastplate he carries, from left to right, a late eighteenth or early nineteenth-century Ottoman silver repoussé scabbard, jade-hilted dagger, and flintlock pistol or kubur.
At his waist he carries a
seventeenth-century Ottoman ray-skin powder flask with applied silver mounts and ivory terminals. In his hands he holds a late eighteenth-century Ottoman ivory-hilted sword or yataghan
, and at his feet rests a Persian steel shield, probably Safavid, of the seventeenth century. The minute detail and photographic realism of the painting were founded in part on rigorous academic training Deutsch received in Paris under history painter Jean-Paul Laurens, and in part on the extensive collection of photographs and objects he amassed in Cairo, which he synthesised into his paintings on his return to Paris.
Paradoxically, while the execution of The Palace Guard demonstrates Deutsch's desire to understand and record the Middle East in every detail, the subject - of such a formidable figure barring any further advance - may be symbolic of the challenge of his quest: as hard as artists might try to chronicle Arab society, there will always be aspects of its rich culture that remain a mystery or beyond the grasp of Western observers. Be that as it may, Deutsch's Egyptian subjects met with huge critical acclaim: in 1900 Deutsch was awarded a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle, and later the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.