Gérôme's path to Orientalism began in 1856, when he travelled to Egypt for the first time. In Cairo, he accumulated a virtual library of souvenirs, costumes, and local crafts, as well as photographs, sketches, and drawings, which served as inspiration for his studio works. Subsequent trips to the region made during the 1860s and 1870s expanded his repertoire of subjects, confirming his talents as an ethnographer and his reputation as a privileged witness to all aspects of Middle Eastern life.
In the present work, Gérôme depicts the daily maghrib, or evening prayer, performed on the housetops of Cairo. In the background, the distinctive skyline of the city is visible, with the Mosque of Muhammad Ali and the Medrasa of Sultan Hasan helping to identify the setting as the Qasaba, near the Bayn al-Qasrayn. Gérôme's choice of subject may have been influenced by his friend and fellow Orientalist Alexandre Bida (1813-95): Bida apparently showed the artist his ink drawing of Prayer on the Housetops (fig. 2, Walters Art Gallery), to which Gérôme responded, 'I have done nothing to equal this.'
Gérôme's figures are executed with comparable documentary care: the men face east, towards Mecca, as the crescent moon and direction of the waning light suggest. They demonstrate each of the ritual postures associated with the prayer, from the initial standing qiyam to the last prostrate sajda. The motivation for this encyclopaedic view was likely a favourite reference of Gérôme's: Edward William Lane's An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, first published in London in 1836, also described these poses, in pictures and in text.
Despite these glosses of realism, Gérôme's image is far from true. A minaret from the Madrasa of the Amir Sarghitmish (1356), placed prominently on the left, is in actual fact miles from this scene, and the rooftop wind scoops are likewise curiously placed (to catch the prevailing winds that sweep through Cairo, they should be facing north). Several of the men, moreover, inspire a strong sense of déjà vu. They reappear in other compositions by Gérôme, in various contexts and dress. The kneeling figure on the right, for example, forehead to the ground, reappears in the same golden yellow robes in Prayer in the Mosque (Ackerman, no. 510) of 1875. The imam, or leader of the prayer on the far left, makes another appearance in Gérôme's The Muezzin of 1866 (Joslyn Art Museum), and its many variations.
Rather than thoughtless oversights, however, these manipulations and distortions were deliberate choices by the artist, made for aesthetic or effect or even out of commercial considerations. In a letter to the dealer Knoedler, the artist explained: 'Prayer in the Mosque had been reserved by Monsieur Simon and I remember that he made me put a figure facing the spectator, by saying that since all the others were seen from the back or in profile, it would not sell. I did as he wanted because his reasons were commercially sound.'
Such artistic liberty did not diminish the overall popularity of Gérôme's works, nor jeopardise their worth. On the contrary, at least three painted versions of the present subject are known, and numerous reproductions and copies were made during the course of the artist's career - a testament to its success. The original painting in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865, shares many of the same features with the present picture, including its formidable size. It is the differences, however, that are the most important here: in the present work, the absence of background figures and the substitution of a striking man in red - a favourite model of the artist's - serve to focus all attention on the devotions of the group, and the poetry of prayer. The third confirmed version is a small oil sketch in a private collection.
In the nineteenth century, making versions of a favourite or highly coveted subject was the standard practice of any artists, and held a specific societal value. Those without the resources to purchase a popular Salon painting could, by these means, enjoy similar works in their own homes, particularly through the production of a reduction, or smaller version, of the piece. For those who wished for a grander addition to their well-hung walls, a répétition was the answer to their needs. This was understood to be a later version of a painting, of roughly the same size.
Owing to a few compositional differences - a requisite of this type - the répétition was considered to be an original and costly work of art. As Patricia Mainardi explains: 'The correct term for an artist's later version of his own theme ... was...répétition, the same word used in performance for a rehearsal. In performance, we never assume that opening night is qualitatively better than later presentations - first presentations are, in fact, usually weaker than subsequent ones, which gain in depth from greater experience and familiarity with the material.' ('The Nineteenth-Century Art Trade: Copies, Variations, Replicas', The Van Gogh Museum Journal, 2000, pp. 63-4). Evening Prayer, then, the last of the three painted versions of this subject to be made, may be interpreted as Gérôme's most valuable and profound rendition of this beloved theme. The artist himself articulated this notion in a letter to the Belgian art dealer Ernest Gambart: 'The alterations that I have made from the original picture [The Duel after the Masquerade, Walters Art Museum] have singularly improved this composition, especially in its general aspect...and I regret not to have thought of it at first when I executed the original.'
The techniques that Gérôme employs throughout this composition exhibit the trademarks of his style, as does the distinctive signature located along a background ledge. Written in capital letters, and devoid of accents and embellishment, it suggests that this work was intended as a finished and marketable version, rather than as a study or a personal gift. The application of the paint around the head of the imam is particularly noteworthy, as it offers a glimpse into the artist's working method. Here, Gérôme simultaneously applies fresh paint to both the figure and the ground, allowing him to balance the painting's overall tones and avoid the hard-edged outlines of others' academic style. The consequent appearance of this painted passage and across the surface of the picture as a whole, as a seamless, luminous sheet of glass, became identified closely with the artist, and with nineteenth-century Orientalism as well. The photographic quality of these works has long encouraged their interpretation as 'factual' - for better or for worse (for more on this subject, see Emily Weeks, 'A Veil of Truth: The Art and Artistry of Jean-Léon Gérôme', Private Journey Magazine, January 2011)
The appearance of Evening Prayer by 1870 in two prominent private collections in England and, fifteen years later, on the East Coast of America, was in keeping with the history of many of Gérôme's best-known works. In 1859, Gérôme signed a contract with the French publisher and art dealer Adolphe Goupil. Goupil's calculated marketing of Gérôme's works, through both the sale of originals and affordable, mass-produced reproductions, guaranteed their widespread distribution, and the growth of his international success. The industrial and commercial booms of the nineteenth century also had a critical role to play. They generated a new group of art purchasers and patrons in these countries, who were eager to prove the sophistication of their nouveau riche tastes. Scenes of Middle eastern prayer offered a broad and somewhat ironic appeal: in addition to reflecting - despite their foreign guise - the familiar moral principles that these new collectors were anxious to uphold, they could also offer hope and comfort at a time of rapid change. As the corruptive influences of capitalism were beginning to be recognised and the complexities of modern life were starting to take their toll, the idea of a pure and unquestioned faith was doubtless reassuring. Gérôme's Evening Prayer, then, a window on to a distant and exotic world, may also, in this context, be read as the final solemn sermon to one closer than it seems.
This catalogue note was written by Emily M. Weeks, Ph.D.
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