Lot 39
  • 39

Edwin Lord Weeks

70,000 - 100,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Edwin Lord Weeks
  • A Market in Ispahan
  • signed EL Weeks (lower left)
  • oil on canvas


Jordan-Volpe Gallery, New York
Dr. Howard P. Diamond, New York

Catalogue Note

Among the most enterprising of nineteenth century Orientalist painters, and, according to contemporaries, one of the best known American painters working abroad, Edwin Lord Weeks made his final and most famous journey to Isfahan in the fall of 1892.  He arrived in that city with the English travel writer and art critic Theodore Child (1846-1892), who had been commissioned to write a series of articles for Harper’s Magazine documenting their travels from Turkey through Persia to India.  (Weeks was to illustrate the texts.)  As the days became more arduous and their circumstances more dire, Child marveled at his friend’s daring and resolute nature: “It is a hard life we are leading, exposed to all the elements – burning sun in the day, cold at night, fearful wind, blinding dust; thieves too, and kicks from horses.  The other day Weeks got a fierce kick on the thigh, but he managed to get over it . . . He paints at sunrise, he paints at sunset . . . We are gathering heaps of material,” (letter dated October 2, 1892, published in Harper's Weekly, vol. 36, November 26, 1892).  Child would later die on their departure from Isfahan from cholera.

Daunted but not defeated, Weeks completed the journey and submitted the articles to Harper’s himself.  Their enormous popularity led to the publication of From the Black Sea through Persia and India in 1895, a more extensively illustrated compilation of the series in book form.  In this volume, Weeks brought to life the brilliance, brutality, and even the banality of the region, through stirring prose and detailed engravings.  A favorite subject among this group, as the present work attests, was the marketplace, replete with local craftsmen, picturesque architecture, and street-front shops.  Here Weeks offers a visual counterpart to the “deafening din and clatter of metal” of Isfahan’s copper bazaar, as described on a late October day in 1892 (Edwin Lord Weeks, From the Black Sea through Persia and India, New York, 1896, p. 89).  Several illustrations from the book, moreover, relate specifically or contextually to the composition, creating a compelling dialogue between paint and print (Weeks, pp. 17, 95, and 115; See lot 39). 

Weeks’s unparalleled adeptness at combining ethnographic and architectural observation — key features of his written works — with an uncanny ability to render a variety of textures, surfaces, and atmosphere effects, and his radical explorations into color and light, is also demonstrated here.  Like so many of his artist-colleagues, Weeks’s interest in the East was stimulated by his study with Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1906) in Paris.  Weeks traveled extensively in the region between 1872 and 1892, venturing further afield than most, and visiting India on multiple occasions. (Indeed, Weeks eventually decided to transfer his studio from the East Coast of America to Paris, as it was, he said, “much more convenient to India.”)  Weeks’s appreciation of Gérôme’s “photographic” technique and exotic subject matter was underscored by his interest in the Spanish school, known for its experimental use of brilliant color.  The sumptuous pictures of Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838-1874), which stand at the center of the entire school of Spanish Orientalism, were fashioned from memories of the distinctive light of Morocco and Andalusia.  Alive with shimmering, glittering color and movement, they had a profound impact on the American painter.  Weeks’s decision to designate himself a “colorist,” rather than an Orientalist, was compelled in large part by this artist’s influence and his audacious palette.  “This is what I intend to send to the Salon,” Weeks once wrote, “but if I am not satisfied with it when it is finished, it won’t go and I shall send nothing.  I mean if it looks fresh and bright and clear it goes; if it looks dried up it stays.  It is bright clear sunlight I want to depict.” (unidentified newspaper, February 1888, clipping in Weeks-Goodwin family scrapbook).

The subtle narratives that inhabit even the most dazzling of these light- and color-rich compositions are a reminder and testament to the artist’s preoccupation with the written word, and are what set Weeks’s paintings apart from those of his peers.  In the present work, for example, the unseen destination of the elaborately adorned camel and the dramatic raking light and chiaroscuro of the scene – hallmarks of Weeks’s mature art – lead us toward the world of theater and opera, rather than suggesting a strict reliance on the documentary photographs he may have used to complete his Orientalist scenes. (Weeks was an avid amateur photographer, amassing a virtual library of self-made and purchased images.) Weeks’s inclusion of bags of cotton against the weathered walls of the historic 17th century Isfahan market adds an additional, this time socio-economic, gloss to the scene as well: harvested in late summer and early fall, the cultivation, processing, and export of cotton in many parts of Persia provided an important source of livelihood for the local population, and was the basis for an array of domestic textile and craft industries.  (By 1896, 30,000 looms could be found in the villages in and around Isfahan alone.)  This highly topical reference contrasts with the element of salvage ethnography that is also witnessed in this work – as the Western march toward industrialization and more sophisticated systems of international trade and influence were at their height, Weeks’s celebration of the local, the artisanal, and the handcrafted becomes particularly poignant. 

This catalogue note was written by Dr. Emily M. Weeks.