This summer, a painting of a man at prayer was the subject of a rigorous investigation by the BBC’s Fake or Fortune programme, conducted by Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce. In the closing moments, as the presenters were in receipt of a critical re-appraisal by art historian and acknowledged expert on the leading 19th-century French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, Emily Weeks, the painting was reinstated into the canon of Gérôme’s oeuvre. The result was a vindication for the owner of the work, the Los Angeles based artist Jon Swihart, who had acquired the painting for $6,325 at auction in New York in 1999, when it was offered as Circle of Jean-Léon Gérôme. When he bought it, Mr Swihart felt intuitively that the picture was by the artist’s hand, even though from the 1980s it had been deemed a collaborative work by the late art historian and leading Gérôme expert, Gerald Ackerman.
Over the course of the investigation, Fiona Bruce visited Sotheby’s in London to speak on camera with Claude Piening, a senior specialist of Orientalist art and Head of Sotheby’s 19th Century European Paintings department. Now, following the positive outcome, Sotheby’s will offer the picture as a lead highlight in The Orientalist Sale, open for bidding from 20 October 2021. Estimated at £80,000-120,000, At Prayer – painted in 1858 – joins the ranks of Gérôme's earliest pictures.
“I love the immediacy of this painting, executed as it was not long after Gérôme’s first trip to Egypt in 1856 and his impressions of his travels were still fresh in his mind – the viewer truly feels transported to another place and culture. It is small work, but has tremendous impact – seeing the figure from the front really conveys the deep communion between the worshipper and God. That this work has been rightfully re-instated into Gérôme’s oeuvre is testament to its exceptional quality.”
At Prayer provides not only a compelling and evocative depiction of Muslim prayer, but a fascinating insight into Gérôme's working methods and artistic licence. Based on a pencil sketch by Gérôme held by the Cooper Art Gallery in Barnsley – a key piece of crucial evidence in the investigation – a robed and turbaned man, his slippers discarded by his side but still with his Ottoman yataghan sword held in his cummerbund, raises his hands to recite the Takbir at the start of his prayer, in front of the pulpit or minbar identified as that of Qaytbay in the Northern Cemetery in Cairo, which Gérôme would have visited.
Gérôme has spared no detail in his sharp and crisp rendering of the figure and his expression, bringing the figure into even greater and clearer focus by intentionally keeping his lightly drawn ink background and omitting the carving to the side of the minbar.
Another notable deviation from verisimilitude in the painting is the position of the worshipper, praying as he is away from the minbar (and therefore Mecca), rather than towards it. This conceit is not unique to Gérôme’s work: he wanted to be able to show his viewers the intensity of expression of the faithful, and – by his own account – there may have been commercial reasons for it. In a letter to the Knoedler Gallery in New York, dated 8 June 1903, Gérôme explained about another of his prayer pictures: ‘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 other figures were seen from the back or in profile, it would not sell. I did as he wanted because his reasons were commercially sound.’
“To dwell on these and other false cultural references (the Arabic inscriptions on the carpet are fantasy) is perhaps to miss the point. Gérôme did indeed reconfigure and reimagine observed reality in order to fit his artistic vision, namely, to express a 'heightened' truth, and the essence of Muslim culture, through the filter of his imagination.”
The model for At Prayer can be found in a further work by Gérôme in the Orientalist Sale: Prayer in the House of the Arnaut Chief, painted in 1857 (est. £100,000-150,000). The painting depicts nine men and a boy in prayer in a domestic interior in Cairo, including seven Arnauts, or bashi bazouks (irregulars in the Ottoman army), wearing their characteristic white kilts. The figure in question appears as one of the bashi bazouks, once more raising his hands in prayer.
Artists in the Muslim world were not working in the same representational, figurative tradition as Western painters. Therefore, beyond the detail captured in Orientalist paintings, very few other visual records from the period capture the mores and manners of this part of the world in the nineteenth century. Arguably the most famous of all the Orientalist painters, Gérôme travelled frequently to Turkey and Egypt. Though he was not averse to mixing fantasy with reality, paintings like At Prayer would have been unthinkable without relying on a first-hand knowledge of the region.
In 2019, Sotheby’s set the auction record for the artist with the compellingly cinematic Riders Crossing the Desert, which sold for £3.1 million / $4.1 million.
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