Jean-Léon Gérôme, Riders Crossing the Desert, oil on canvas, 1870, est. £3,000,000-5,000,000.jpg
Orientalist Paintings

Cinematic Canvases Fit for the Silver Screen

By Christian House
The grandeur of the Orientalist realm – North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia – mesmerized a coterie of intrepid 19th-century European artists and, a century later, it had the same effect on half of Hollywood. It is apt then that the Najd Collection of Orientalist paintings , to be offered at Sotheby’s this October, contains canvases that could light up an Odeon.
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Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Harem in the Kiosk, 1870. Estimate £3,000,000-5,000,000.

T he Najd Collection delivers cinematic compositions – lone figures in dizzying vistas, caravans in transit, bustling scenes of bazaars, characters in contemplation. The region’s enigmatic atmosphere and expansive landscape has attracted many filmmakers, from American mavericks, including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, to European auteurs, such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci. What is striking is how painting and film mirror one another in their treatment of the people and places.

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Eugène Fromentin, Windstorm on the Esparto Plains of the Sahara, 1864. Estimate £400,000-600,000.

While shooting Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan in 1962, the British film director David Lean likened his panning shots of riders to a narrative journey (one can see something similar in Riders Crossing the Desert, an enigmatic oil by Jean-Léon Gérôme). And in Hidalgo (2004), another Omar Sharif movie, desert horsemen are pitched against the elements, scenes that recall Eugène Fromentin’s painting Windstorm on the Esparto Plains of the Sahara. “The rightmost horse, like its rider, faces into the wind with stoic determination,” notes Sotheby’s specialist Richard Lowkes. “The wave-like esparto grass adds to the relentless movement.” It’s a stirring scene that demands a soaring soundtrack.

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Jean-Léon Gérôme, Riders Crossing the Desert, 1870. Estimate £3,000,000-5,000,000.

This ancient land has often been used by directors for futuristic ends. Most famously, the stark, unforgiving landscape leant its other-worldly qualities to Star Wars, in which Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi find the force in the Tunisian deserts. Animation has also drawn inspiration from its rugged charms. In The Adventures of Tintin (2011), Spielberg digitised the dunes and CGI-fashioned the fictitious Moroccan port of Bagghar, its arches and gates creating frames within frames. The baton has been passed from fine art to graphic art to celluloid (or its digital equivalent).

Images from left to right: Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope, 1977. Photo by Lucasfilm/Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock. Lawrence Of Arabia, 1962. Photo by Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock. The English Patient, 1996. Photo by Phil Bray/Tiger Moth/Miramax/Kobal/Shutterstock.

Other Boy's Own adventure films, including Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Mummy (1999), have drawn on the curious sights and sounds of travellers, traders and musicians to provide suspense (Hitchcock delighted in the markets of Marrakesh while filming The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956).

In the Najd Collection we discover a filmic cast of figures: Sultans and sentinels, carpet sellers and worshippers. Likewise, although the epic aspects lend themselves to action movies, the human element has not been lost on filmmakers, who have used the hazy noir of the harsh light and the ornate curlicues of the vernacular architecture to reflect inner turmoil and knotty psychology.

Gustav Bauernfeind, Market in Jaffa, oil on canvas, 1887, est. £2,500,000-3,500,000.jpg
Gustav Bauernfeind, Market in Jaffa, 1887. Estimate £2,500,000-3,500,000.

In Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-winning The English Patient (1996), a tortured love affair is seen from on high – as the doomed lovers fly over the undulating sands – and lie low in the grand hotels of Cairo. And in Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) the cracked landscape of Algeria represents a couple's arid marriage. In both films, interiors provide retreats, much like they do in the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Osman Hamdy Bey and Ludwig Deutsch.

On film and canvas, the Orientalist realm – its arcane dress, spiritual symbols, awe-inspiring beauty and dangerous terrain – has consistently provided dramatic material. And, thankfully, there is always an oasis to provide a happy ending.

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