- Rudolf Ernst
- The Fountain of Ahmed III, Istanbul
- signed R Ernst and dated 92 (lower left)
- oil on panel
Private Collection, United States (by descent from the above in 1972)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Though little appreciated by critics during his lifetime, Rudolph Ernst exhibited his works at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français for over sixty years and is today one of the most celebrated and sought-after Orientalist painters of the nineteenth century. The present work, one of the most elaborate compositions by this artist to be offered for sale in recent years, both demonstrates the qualities for which Ernst is most admired and stands as an arresting example of the intimate relationship between art and photography at the turn of the nineteenth century.
After studying at the Vienna Academy, of which his father, an architectural painter. was a member, Ernst traveled to Rome and, in the 1880s, to Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia. Later travels would take him to Egypt and, in 1890, to Turkey, the site of this particular scene. (It was on this trip that Ernst developed a passion for faience - a technique he would later attempt.) In 1876, Ernst settled in France, exhibiting regularly and eventually taking French nationality. After an initial interest in portraits, images of children, and genre scenes, Ernst turned in 1885 to Orientalist subjects, based upon the numerous sketches, photographs, and souvenirs he had accumulated during his travels. In 1900, Ernst moved from Paris to Fontenay-aux-Roses, where he lived a quiet and somewhat reclusive life. One of Ernst's rare visitors was his childhood friend and fellow Orientalist, the Austrian painter Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935), whose works bear a marked resemblance to Ernst's own.
Composed in his studios in France, Ernst's best-known Orientalist subjects include colorful portrayals of the traditional professions and customs of the Ottoman world, harems and scenes of women's daily domestic life, mosque interiors, and tigers. Noteworthy too are a series of pictures of Arab sentinels and other protectors, which feature elaborately costumed male figures standing guard at entrances to marble palaces, harems, and other sacrosanct spaces. Though the entire Austrian school of Orientalists seems to have had a fascination for such scenes, it was Ernst (along with his friend Deutsch) who virtually monopolized the field and captured the public's attention.
In each of these paintings, Ernst provides his characteristic barrage of textures and surfaces, as well as highly informative, exquisitely rendered, records of specific weapons, garments, and architectural details. Despite his first-hand knowledge of many of the subjects he painted, and his abundant library of images and objects, there is also in these works an unapologetic and even freewheeling eclecticism: Algerian, Turkish, Egyptian, and Hispano-Moresque motifs are united in these fantastic, rather than factual, Orientalist images.
Ernst's reliance on photographs to create many of his studio paintings offers valuable insights into his working method, and is of profound importance for an understanding of the late nineteenth-century art world. The present work, painted two years after Ernst's return from Turkey, would have necessitated such precise documents to render so exactly the intricate decorations of this renowned site. Set just outside the gates of Topkapi Palace (Bab-i Hümayun) in the Eminönü District of Istanbul, the fountain of Ahmed III was built in 1728-9, during the Tulip Era (so-called because of the popularity of this flower and the flourishing of the arts in Turkey between 1718 and 1730). The fountain is in the form of a miniature pavilion, covered by a central dome and four smaller domes, which flare out into broad eaves. There are water-taps set into shallow niches on each of the four sides, and at each corner is a semi-circular sebil, or kiosk, where drinking water was distributed in cups to passers-by. (The water is supplied from an octagonal pool inside the kiosk; access is provided by doors on the southeast side.) Each sebil has three tall windows, which, as Ernst's painting attests, are covered with elaborate bronze lattices. Small openings at the bottom of each window allowed communication from the kiosk attendant, who distributed water or sherbet from behind the grille, free of charge. Along the top of the pavilion are large calligraphic plates bordered with red tiles (fig. 1). Each plate bears stanzas written in ta'lik script of a fourteen-line poem composed in praise of the fountain and its donor by Seyyid Hüseyin Vehbi bin Ahmed. The last stanza of the poem is a chronogram composed by Ahmed III. Written in celi sülüs style, it adorns the northwest façade, which is differentiated from the other façades by its more elaborate decoration.
The aesthetic allure of the fountain was matched by its social significance. Considered the supreme act of charity, public fountains were erected by nearly every important personage, and in nearly every Turkish neighborhood, from at least the fifteenth century forward. These architectural monuments soon became the favorite gathering places of the local populations, and the site of constant activity and interesting encounters. It may have been these facts, as much as its beautiful decoration, that led the fountain of Ahmed III to become one of the most painted and photographed secular sites in Istanbul in the nineteenth century.
Among the best-known images of the fountain are those by James Robertson (c. 1814-1888), an engraver at the Ottoman Mint from the 1840s, as well as a painter and photographer. Although Robertson maintained a studio (with his brother-in-law Felice Beato) at number 293, on the corner of Rue de la Poste and Grande Rue de Pera, only until 1867, the influence of his photographs on nineteenth-century European society cannot be overestimated. Many of Robertson's photographs were exhibited in London and Paris; a photograph of the fountain of Ahmed III was included in the 1855 Exposition Universelle (Bahattin Oztuncay, The Photographers of Constantinople: Pioneers, Studios and artists from 19th century Istanbul, Istanbul, 2003, vol, I, p. 124). They were also published in albums and as engravings and lithographs in periodicals and books throughout Europe, from 1853 forward (Oztuncay, vol. I, p. 141). Interestingly, the most successful printed reproductions based on Robertson's photographs were produced in Ernst's hometown of Vienna, especially by Alois Auer, head of the Austrian Royal Press and later Faust: Poligrafisch Illustrirte Zeitschrift (Oztuncay, vol. I, p. 146). In the 1857 issue of Faust, a tinted lithograph after one of Robertson's photographs of the fountain of Ahmed III was printed (fig. 2). At about the same time, Lloyds of Austria in Trieste printed 28 steel engravings in the album Souvenirs de Constantinople; 21 contained the annotation 'Nach Photographie von Robertson' in the caption (Oztuncay, vol. I, p. 141) (fig. 3).
That Ernst would have encountered prints made after Robertson's photographs of the fountain of Ahmed III in Paris or Vienna is therefore likely, and may help to explain the similarities between these images and Ernst's own. So too, as a collector of photographs, and an amateur photographer himself (see Roger Benjamin, Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997, p. 241), Ernst may even have visited photography studios abroad. He would not have been alone. In 1875, Jean-Léon Gérôme had purchased photographs from the Abdullah Frères, who operated the most important photography studio in Istanbul, for use toward his own paintings (Oztuncay, vol. I, p 179), and Ernst's close friend Ludwig Deutsch had used the photographs of G. Lékégian for the backgrounds of his Orientalist pictures (Martina Haja and Günther Wimmer, Les orientalistes des écoles allemande et autrichienne, Paris, 2000, p. 199). Tellingly, on the verso of Lékégian's photographs was often written 'Photographie Artistique' and 'Atelier Spécial de Peinture,' indicating that the photographs were specifically marketed to artists (Ken Jacobson, Odalisques & Arabesques: Orientalist Photography 1839-1925, London, 2007, pp. 249-50).
What cannot be attributed to a photograph, however, is the vibrancy of Ernst's painting, and the subtle narratives that it contains. Due to the long exposure time and the limitations of a monochromatic medium, nineteenth-century photographs often seem strangely melancholic, and drained of energy and life. (Indeed, the images of the fountain of Ahmed III reproduced here convey an eerie stillness and stagnation.) Ernst has taken great care to overcome this effect, by including in his composition numerous vignettes of daily Turkish life. There is the colorful figure of a melon-seller, seated on a Talish carpet and surrounded by cut fruit and flowers. To the left, there is an elderly gentleman in beautifully tailored robes, and a mustachioed man, dressed in baggy black salvars. The latter figure measures and weighs his goods for a woman and her impatient child. (The distinctive table at which he stands, with its spindly crossed legs, was common in Turkey, and is seen in many contemporary photographs and paintings.) Perhaps most interesting, however, is the pair of figures at the right, who seem about to interact. The seated figure wears the fez, indicative of the sweeping reforms and modernization efforts in Turkey after 1839, and contemplates a cigarette. He is watched by a water-carrier (saka), whose leather water bag is strapped securely to his donkey. In Turkey at the time, it was forbidden for the sakas, particularly those who used horses and other animals, to fill their water bags at the public fountains. (This was to ensure that local people were not obstructed in their efforts to obtain water.) The decree was not always followed, however, and arguments often ensued. Could we be on the verge of such an incident here?
This sense of impending drama is typical of Ernst, and is one of the most engaging aspects of his art. Typical too is the dramatic - but fanciful - view of the mosque on the left, its pencil-shaped minarets pointing skyward. This addition to the scene, a reminder of Ernst's tendency to pastiche, is also another sign of what the artist, and not the photographer, could do.