A lmost all Orientalist artists travelled to the Middle East in their quest for inspiration and content with which to fill their paintings. Some – most notably David Roberts – only visited once, but the majority made regular expeditions as they tried to stay ahead of what was an increasingly competitive field during the second half of the 19th century.
Venturing to remote locations in often difficult circumstances, these artist-travellers strove to gather as much material as possible, both visual (in terms of making sketches of local scenes and experiences) and physical (through the acquisition of artefacts and other cultural memorabilia), which they would then use later in their studios. Life on the road could be tough, with periods of hardship, sickness and frequent logistical upsets. Some artists even died while overseas.
However these artist-travellers explored – be it solo or with companions – there is one recurring theme in their letters and diaries: the constant problem they faced of finding local people willing to sit for them. Human interest was an essential component of the Orientalist oeuvre, with depictions of exotic markets and crowded streets among the most highly prized by collectors and audiences back in Europe and the United States. But how to populate such scenes with accurately portrayed characters when the real thing was so difficult to record?
Local religious and cultural concerns over pictorial representation – especially of women – precluded the open sketching of crowds in public. Artists such as Gustav Bauernfeind despaired of being able to make even the most basic drawing alfresco without attracting hostile attention. He was forced to try and observe people from rooftops and even then, once spotted, would have to stop and hide until the brouhaha in the streets below had died down. Such difficulties make his achievements in well-populated paintings such as Procession in Jaffa all the more remarkable.
The advent of photography offered hope of a speedier way to capture a particular scene. Frederick Arthur Bridgman was a keen amateur photographer, but well aware of the risks involved in wielding a camera in public. In his book Winters in Algeria (1890) he noted how local people showed “a particular dislike to the camera, and have become acquainted with the noise of an instantaneous shutter…” More shockingly, he also recounted how one of his acquaintances tried to photograph a group scene and was promptly attacked by the crowd, showered with stones, beaten with sticks and had his camera smashed to pieces. Doubtless mindful of such incidents, Bauernfeind resorted to a secret camera of the type used by undercover agents, with the lens poking out through the buttonhole of his jacket.
With life on the streets so fraught for Western artists, one obvious solution was to arrange private sittings away from the public gaze. For payment of an often prodigious fee, local fixers were usually able to arrange for ‘models’ to sit for artists, but the process rarely ran smoothly. It invariably involved extensive cloak-and-dagger secrecy, with Bridgman recalling how he had once rented an empty dwelling as a studio “for the purpose of having models pose without the interferences of the populace”. Terrified women – booked in advance by Bridgman’s fixer – would clamber into the studio through holes in the roof to avoid being seen from the street. Meanwhile, less desirable would-be subjects – “ugly specimens of humanity”, according to Bridgman – were banging on the studio door, offering their dubious charms for his easel and sketchbook.
Patience and sensitivity were a top priority in terms of building trust, and it was also Bridgman who made one of the most productive contacts of any Orientalist artist. Overwintering in Algiers, he became friendly with a 30-year old widow called Baïa, who “had posed for artists a good deal; but since, with her youth on the wane, that lucrative occupation had become rarer...” He stayed regularly at her residence and was privy to the daily events and activities of the household’s womenfolk. The result was meticulously observed domestic scenes such as that depicted in The Weaver, unique in the male Orientalist canon. Bridgman and Baïa became good friends and remained in contact by mail for years after he had returned to his home in France.
Their travels over, artists would resume work in their studios and start producing the paintings that marked the culmination of the entire process. Many of these studios were recreations of the Orient, lavishly decked out with appropriate paraphernalia ranging from ceramics and lamps to costumes and carpets. Many artists had acquired vast such collections, none more so than Ludwig Deutsch, one of the most accomplished studio workers of all. His paintings are filled with artefacts that he had assembled over the course of several visits to Egypt, but of particular interest are the models that he used in his hallmark single-figure paintings.
In London, Frederick Goodall regularly employed the services of an Arab model he called “Old Hasman”, whom he valued greatly for his ability to sit still for long periods. On one occasion Hasman fell asleep on a dummy camel made by Goodall from boxes, pillows and bedding, promptly falling off but seemingly “without hurting himself in the least”. Artists also used what were known as lay figures. These were mannequins, usually made of wood but with muscles and shaping created by woollen padding. The joints were articulated to allow a range of difficult postures, such as holding water vessels aloft or dance positions, as in Charles Wilda’s The Dancer. Usually a live model would be asked to strike the required pose, from which the artist would make a quick sketch before resuming work later using a lay figure.
Certain types of Oriental personality were particularly popular with collectors. Especially favoured were the dashing bashi-bazouks of Cairo, descendants of Albanian mercenaries and who still wore their traditional white arnaut skirts. Jean-Léon Gérôme was especially skilled in their portrayal, and his huge collection of photographs is known to have included two images of men – probably paid models wearing outfits from the artist’s own costume collection – dressed as bashi-bazouks. The results appear in works like Arnaut of Cairo and Egyptian Recruits Crossing The Desert.
Such intricate and lavish compositions were the mainstay of Orientalist art, their highly accomplished character belying the trials and tribulations involved in depicting realistic human types and activities. It is testament to the persistence and ingenuity of the artists concerned that we are able to enjoy such resonant masterpieces today.