T his autumn, visitors to Sotheby’s London galleries will experience every facet of daily life in the Arab, Ottoman, and Islamic worlds through the paintings of the renowned Najd Collection. Recorded in a publication that today stands as one of the leading resources for Orientalist art, the Najd Collection enjoys a celebrated status. Though certain paintings from the 155-strong collection have occasionally been exhibited in leading institutions around the world, this superlative group of works has never before been displayed in its entirety.
Beginning on 11 October 2019, the Najd Collection will be unveiled to the public for the very first time. This unprecedented exhibition will be followed by a dedicated evening sale of 40 paintings from the collection on 22 October.
The Visionary Orientalist Art of the Najd Collection
In the early to mid-1980s, one collector, driven by an informed passion to build a panoptic picture of society of the region a century or more ago, assembled the Najd Collection. Eager to look beyond the confines of their own Western experience, the artists represented throughout the Najd Collection travelled to and spent time in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East to portray first-hand what they saw and experienced. The legacy of their work has provided an invaluable documentary narrative of regions that have since been transformed by modernisation and, in some cases, conflict.
Artists in the Muslim world were not working in the same representational, figurative tradition as Western painters. Therefore, beyond the detail captured in Orientalist paintings, very few other visual records from the period capture the mores and manners of this part of the world in the 19th century.
A rguably the most famous of all the Orientalist painters, Jean-Léon Gérôme travelled frequently to Turkey and Egypt. Though he was not averse to mixing fantasy with reality, paintings like Riders Crossing the Desert would have been unthinkable without relying on a first-hand knowledge of the region.
Gérôme first travelled to the Egyptian desert in 1856. It was a journey that left an indelible impression on him. He was overwhelmed by its scale, its beauty and its pitiless harshness, and he harboured the utmost respect for all those who braved it. All his impressions are captured in this painting, which exhibits a narrative and cinematic vision that characterises the very best of Gérôme’s oeuvre.
Painted just a year after the opening of the Suez Canal, at a moment when the Orient was quickly becoming more accessible, this brilliant, compelling work captures an aspect of that world that remains forever timeless.
Prayers in the Mosque, among Gérôme’s most popular works, is part of a series of paintings depicting Muslim men at prayer. The figures are executed with the artist’s usual documentary care: the men face east, towards Mecca, and between them demonstrate each of the ritual postures associated with the prayer. In reality, all of the worshippers would follow the different positions in unison. However, a manipulation such as this would have been a deliberate choice by the artist to illustrate to audiences at home, in the space of one canvas, the prayer’s consecutive stages.
Austrian artist Ludwig Deutsch devoted himself almost exclusively to painting the types he witnessed during several trips to Cairo, masterfully capturing every detail of their costumes and physiognomy. Like many of his contemporaries, Deutsch relied on early photographs to ensure his renderings of local architectural features were as accurate as possible. In fact, in his Paris studio he surrounded himself with photographs, Islamic tiles, furniture, textiles and metalwork to ensure that not a single detail escaped his attention.
The Tribute is one of Deutsch’s most ambitious works and the highest estimated picture by the artist to appear at auction. Rich in detail, the painting depicts a cortège of four figures approaching an entrance of a palace guarded by a sentinel, as they seek to pay their tributes. Deutsch’s painstakingly detailed style is evident in every object, from the soldier’s peacock-feather helmet and ivory-hilted dagger to the bearded elder’s elaborately patterned turban and babouche slippers.
The Scribe depicts a public letter-writer, who is shown sitting in the street in a meditative pose outside his house waiting for passing trade. At that time society placed a high value on literacy and the subtleties of elegant calligraphy, and public scribes such as these were highly esteemed individuals.
Celebrated for his masterfully observed single figures, Deutsch employed a rigorous technique and likely used a magnifying glass to achieve the extremely fine level of detail evident in his work. The Guard, depicted above, shows a proud and richly decorated sentinel, standing alert and brandishing a long Ottoman staff, with a cluster of weapons at his disposal.
The Morning Prayer is a powerful and noble evocation of the rites and religion of the Muslim world, depicting a man absorbed in prayerful contemplation facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca. Rather than focusing on subjects with a narrative or anecdotal quality, Deutsch took a far more modern approach – often described as documentary realism – by isolating and scrutinising particular moments in time.
Painted in 1879, this work was inspired by Frederick Arthur Bridgman’s only trip to Egypt. The composition focuses on a meeting between the master of the house, surrounded by family and advisers, and an envoy bearing a letter. Bridgman was interested in the depiction of contemporary local customs, and a letter being hand-delivered by a traveller from afar – in contrast to the electric telegraph – would have been a novel event to observe.
Charles Robertson first travelled to Algeria in 1862 at the age of eighteen and was immediately enraptured by the local culture and customs; he subsequently travelled to Morocco, Egypt, Jerusalem, Damascus and Turkey. Demonstrating the artist’s mastery of watercolour, A Carpet Seller, Cairo captures an animated market, which features an impressive rug draped over a balcony and various merchandise laid out for the day.
O ne of only a handful of works by the artist ever to have appeared on the international market, ‘Renaissance man’ Osman Hamdy Bey's superlative Koranic Instruction ranks among the finest ever painted by the artist. One of the most accomplished and revered cultural figures of his day, Hamdy Bey was the first Turkish artist to embrace fully the European style of painting and to use it to depict his own country. More than any other Orientalist painter, he personifies the bridge between cultures. Unlike Western artists who approached their subjects from the outside looking in, Hamdy Bey occupied a unique position; as an artist endemic to the region, he simply painted what he knew, understood, and lived.
Figurative painting was virtually unprecedented in Turkey at the time, so Hamdy Bey’s detailed, ‘realistic’ depictions of people pursuing their daily lives represented something completely radical and ground-breaking for his Turkish contemporaries. And Hamdy Bey’s readiness to challenge tradition did not stop there; beyond the figurative nature of the paintings themselves, he was also ready to use his works to challenge the social and religious mores of the time.
In this painting, subtle details such as the seated pupil on the verge of falling asleep challenge the noble occupation of Koranic instruction. This rebellious figure represents none other than the 48-year-old artist himself. His inclusion of the word ‘napping’ in the Arabic script – a detail that would not have been lost on contemporary Turkish viewers—reflects Hamdi Bey’s playful spirit and acerbic wit.
The Harem in the Kiosk depicts a group of veiled ladies and their daughters guarded by a formidable armed sentry. The artist uses the idyllic yet implausible outing as a device to convey the existence and workings of this social institution.
The son of an architect, Rudolf Ernst made several trips to Morocco, Egypt and Turkey and devoted his life to painting Islamic scenes and vignettes of everyday life. On his return to France, he decorated his home in the Ottoman style. In The Mosque of Rüstem Pasha, Constantinople, Ernst takes delight in recording the precise patterns of the Iznik tiles in a lavish mosque in Constantinople.
A rchitect and explorer Gustav Bauernfeind first visited the Levant in the early 1880s. He was immediately captivated and in 1898 persuaded his wife and son to leave Germany to settle with him in Jerusalem. Throughout his time there, he travelled extensively across the region, frequently visiting Syria and Lebanon. Despite the suspicion he aroused from locals as well as the risk of plague, Bauernfeind intrepidly painted in cities including Jaffa and Damascus. Rather than glamorize reality, he preferred to concentrate on genuine, unvarnished vignettes of everyday life as he witnessed them. From his first-hand observations of Middle Eastern culture, he created images that are historically and archeologically accurate.
"A city like Jaffa, with its many orange groves all around, assumes its distinctive physiognomy when the fruit is harvested in winter...The market turns yellow with the fruit. Then comes the season for other fruits to leave their impression on the market... Granted [the fruit harvest] is much the same at home, but what makes it all the more interesting in these parts is the antique setting...and people’s costumes. So you can see that you have to live in a country like this a long time before becoming even superficially familiar with all it has to offer."
Painted in 1887, Market in Jaffa was no doubt inspired by Bauernfeind’s experience of harvest time in Palestine. The sellers of fresh produce rub shoulders with other merchants and craftsmen, including a weaver mending a Berber rug, a pottery seller, an arms merchant presenting a dagger to interested customers, and water and grain carriers, while a group of women seek refreshment at a well in the heat of the afternoon sun. Above the bustle, on the rooftops, a woman makes aish shamsi flatbread - allowing the dough to rise in the sun, before baking it in the stone oven behind her.
Gustav Bauernfeind initially trained as an architect and became a painter relatively late in life. Perhaps because of his training as an architect, Bauernfeind was particularly interested in the streets, buildings, temples and other urban architecture of the places he visited in Cairo, Jerusalem, Jaffa and Damascus, and he would often travel with a camera to capture the settings of his paintings. Indeed, he had no intention of glamorising reality, nor did he seek only elaborate or monumental structures. He concentrated on genuinely observable vignettes of everyday life, on forgotten and little-known corners, markets and narrow lanes, on scenes of life as he witnessed them.
E xhibited to great acclaim at the Paris Salon of 1864, Windstorm on the Esparto Plains of the Sahara remains one of the most enduring and striking compositions in all Orientalist art. The five riders and their mounts are depicted near Laghouat on the fringe of the Sahara in Algeria, although the precise setting could hardly be inferred from the stark scenery. Apart from the riders the only interruption to the low horizon is a series of cliffs to the right, whose rigidity only serves to heighten their vulnerability. The scene derives its power from the riders' various reactions to the desert wind, identified by some contemporary critics as the ‘Khamsin’ or ‘Simoun’, although the artist did not make this explicit in the title.
Eugène Fromentin secured his reputation as one of the leading figures of the Orientalist genre through extended stays in Algeria, publishing two illustrated travel books based on his first-hand experiences, Un été dans le Sahara (1857) and Une année dans le Sahel (1859). In addition to his art, these texts have made Fromentin the subject of numerous recent critical studies, which document his role as one of the earliest and most significant theorists of Orientalism.
"One would think that the wind could not be painted, being a colourless and formless thing, yet it blows visibly through M. Fromentin’s picture."
The painting powerfully expresses the ‘authentic’, lived Orientalism Fromentin sought to promote, born of his own first-hand knowledge of the desert and his respect for its way of life. This he contrasted with those he regarded as ‘bourgeois Orientalists’, who ‘composed like inventories’ in the comfort of the studio. The painting’s genesis can be traced to Lisière d’oasis pendant le sirocco of 1859, one of five paintings Fromentin showed at that year’s Salon. Described by the critic Louis Gonse as Fromentin’s ‘Salon-roi’, the painting contributed to Fromentin's great success that year; he was decorated with a first-class medal and the Croix de la Légion d’Honneur.
F ramed by the Moorish horseshoe arch of the fortified gate, the present work immerses the viewer in a scene of high pageantry and ceremony, bathed in luminous Moroccan light. The Sultan, distant, mounted on a white horse and shielded by a parasol, emerges as his subjects bow to the ground, flags fly, guns are fired and smoke hangs in the air. The scene is thought to derive its immediacy and power from Benjamin-Constant’s first-hand experience some years earlier in 1872, when he accompanied Charles Tissot, the plenipotentiary French minister, on a diplomatic mission from Tangier to Marrakech. Bridgman recounted the scene in Harper’s Bazaar in 1889 (op. cit.).
"He is mounted on a superb white horse with a green saddle and trappings, green being the colour of the Emir. The instant the master appears the whole court bows to the ground and, like a murmur at once humble and martial, a clamour ever growing in strength, the cry rises, 'May Allah protect our master!'"
At the same time, the artist was clearly thinking of Eugène Delacroix’ celebrated earlier composition of the Sultan leaving a walled city: Moulay Abd ar-Rahman, Sultan of Morocco, Leaving the Palace in Meknès. In turn, the composition also recalls Benjamin-Constant’s composition of some five years earlier, The Last Rebels, Scene of Moroccan History. Both works reveal the shift in the artist’s style from harem and desert scenes to grand and powerful compositions that project a cinematic gravitas of great history paintings.