Orientalist Paintings

Watercolours From Carl Haag's Important Tour of the Levant

By Harry Edmonds

E ugene Delacroix once wrote that he was “truly sorry for the artists gifted with imagination who [could] never have any idea of [the] virgin, sublime nature” of the Orient. The vision of an exotic levant with its light and explosive colour, distinctive townscapes and people persuaded German artist Carl Haag to make his once in a lifetime tour of the Middle East between 1858-60. Haag, a man with a reputation high in British artistic establishment circles, undertook a fascinating journey first through Egypt and then on to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. This year’s Orientalist Sale features five watercolours by Haag, with four of these painted during this time.

Arriving in Egypt in 1858, Haag shared a house in Cairo with his friend and fellow artist Frederick Goodall whom Haag had met in London the year before. Together the two men explored the many facets of Egyptian life, rising early on horseback and searching the surrounding landscape for suitable subjects to sketch. When the scorching temperatures became too unbearable, they returned to the house to work up their sketches into paintings. With the exception of the distractions of flies as well as the widely held fear of the Bashi Bazaouks, the irregular troops of the Ottoman empire who were infamous for looting and lack of discipline, Haag wrote in letters that he had fallen in love with the Egyptian scene.

In April 1859, Haag travelled to Jerusalem to undertake an extraordinary feat not achieved by any Western artist up to this point – to paint the Dome of the Rock. Despite the gradual emergence of a tourist trade in the mid-nineteenth century, it was almost impossible for any Western visitor to gain entry to most religious monuments. ‘Firmans’, or passes, had to be negotiated in advance and adherence to local dress was essential. At the special request of Queen Victoria, the Pasha of Egypt granted Haag permission to paint the Dome.

Given that foreigners, or ‘franks’, had reportedly been put to death for merely entering the outer court, Haag had to paint under heavily-armed guard. The trio of watercolours in The Orientalist Sale reveal the extent of access that Haag had to the Dome; with the holy rock, inner corridor of the dome and cave beneath the holy rock all depicted. Despite the eyes of the authorities preying upon him, Haag felt at ease enough to paint with his trademark thin brush strokes and used bright colours when depicting the individual figures at worship.

When Haag first heard about The Ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra he is said to have exclaimed “If I am a ruined man forever, or if I must walk there in Bedouin sandals, I must go to Palmyra!” In October 1859 he made the acquaintance of Sheikh Medjuel el-Mezrab and his English wife, Jane Digby, formally, Lady Ellenborough. The Sheikh was the leader of the Sebbah tribe and he granted Haag permission to travel to Palmyra and paint the ruins of Queen Zenobia's ancient city. Haag, not wishing to squander the opportunity he had, executed a watercolour on a grand scale.

Using the influence of the English watercolourists that he held in high regard and in particular Turner, Haag imbues the work with a rich, hazy light all a slightly different tone as the eye wanders around the canvas. His depiction of the bright light of the desert sun shining through the gaps in the temple is particularly astonishing and transcends any watercolour that Haag painted during his trip. No doubt it would have been received to great aplomb by the Victorian audience fascinated by the architecture of the region when the work was exhibited at the Royal Watercolour Society in 1860.

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