Arnauts, or bashi-bazouks, were irregulars in the Ottoman army and hailed from Albania and the Balkans. The strain on the Ottoman feudal system caused by the Empire's wide expanse required heavier reliance on irregular soldiers. They were armed and maintained by the government, but did not receive pay and did not wear uniforms or distinctive badges. Because not formally trained, they could not serve in major military operations, but were useful for other tasks such as reconnaissance and outpost duty.
Throughout his travels in the 1860s and 1870s, Gérôme made hundreds of sketches and studies and amassed an impressive collection of photographs and local goods, which were later used toward the meticulously detailed, highly polished oil paintings executed at his Paris studio, including the present work. Painted in 1864, in the year the artist was appointed by Emperor Napoleon III to head one of the three official ateliers of the École des Beaux-Arts, Prayer in the Desert was possibly the result of Gérôme’s second trip to the Orient just a few years earlier, in 1862.
The present work appears to be a réduction of a larger work of the same title currently in private hands. The production of réductions, smaller versions after the ‘official’ Salon paintings, was a common practice in the nineteenth century, to satisfy the wishes of collectors who did not have the means to buy at the annual Salon. Also made to serve as prototypes for engravers to copy in the production of commercial prints after original paintings, these were often given over to the studio, with the resulting work being only partially by the artist’s hand. However, after recent thorough examination, the present work has been identified and fully re-instated as an autograph painting by Gérôme.
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