Painted in 1857 and exhibited at that year’s Salon, Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert was executed at the height of Gérôme’s powers, following his first trip to Egypt in 1856 with sculptor and photographer Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. During that trip, the two men witnessed the forced enrolment of a corvée by the Arnauts in Asyut.
Even in the unremitting heat of the desert, Gérôme paints with an objectivity that evokes compassion and admiration for the conscripts, who stand defiant as they struggle with nothing but a flat, white desert landscape to relieve their plight. The contrast between the precision of the figures in the foreground and the prisoners in the distance who are almost completely covered by the dust storm, testifies to the artist's great mastery of both vision and medium.
Gérôme has skillfully played on his reputation for accuracy through the precise attention to detail he pays to the dress of the figures in the foreground. The first row includes fellaheen, Copts, and a Nubian clothed in either blue shirts, brown mach’lahs or white burnouses. Théophile Gautier was struck by the stark realism of these figures when he first saw the work in Gérôme’s studio and wrote at the time: ‘The artist-traveller has made numerous pencil portrait studies of different characteristic types; there are fellahs, Copts, Arabs, negroes of mixed blood from Sanandaj and from Kordofan – so exactly observed that they could be used in the anthropological treatises of M. Serres.’
The conception of Gérôme’s painting was based not only on his usual sketches but also on photographs he had taken with Bartholdi in 1856. A photograph from the Gérôme/Morot Collection at the Musée d’Orsay shows a male model posing in Arnaut dress (fig. 1) in an identical pose to the Arnaut here, leading recruits with a rifle slung across both shoulders. The photographs, likely taken on the roof or terrace of the artist’s studio in Paris, were crucial in helping Gérôme capture the patterns of light and shadow on the skirt, particularly at high noon. The model wears the white pleated kilt, a uniform with which Gérôme was deeply familiar and which was adopted by Albanians and the military caste of the Bashi-Bazouks. Arnauts pervaded his work from the late 1850s onwards and, although they were meant as authentic figures of Ottoman life, could also be more of a literary conceit, in some cases representing figures of Ottoman despotism. In The Prisoner (fig. 2), it is of course an Arnaut who, with a certain cruelty, leans over the man lying bound in the bottom of the boat.
Gérôme painted a smaller version of the present work (sold Christie’s, London 15 June 2005, and since the 1860s either conflated with, or mistaken for, the Salon painting), as well as an unfinished oil of the leading Arnaut guard. Egyptian Recruits Crossing the Desert was published as a photogravure by Goupil & Co. in 1877.
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