Painted in 1872, this evocative work captures the moment on a hot afternoon in the implacable brightness of the desert sun, as a horseman comforts his exhausted steed against the backdrop of a range of barren hills. With great mastery and a director's eye for narrative, Gérôme evokes the utter stillness and loneliness of the desert air. The heat is made almost palpable to the viewer through the bright sun on the rider's brilliant white headdress and dishdasha, and the sun reflecting off the horse's shiny coat.
Gérôme had seen such landscapes during his first trip to Egypt with the sculptor and photographer Frederic Auguste Bartholdi in 1856, and again in 1868, notably accompanied by his brother-in-law and photographer Albert Goupil and fellow painters Paul Lenoir, Léon Bonnat, and Willem de Famars Testas. He was therefore familiar with this harsh, wild world, and the way in which its inhabitants braved it with impassive dignity. The glossy coat of the steed and the crisp white linens of the figure seem clean and fresh despite their adverse situation. Gérôme’s controlled brush lends the man and his horse the ancient calm and panache of great viziers straight out of The Arabian Nights, much as in related works such as Arabs Crossing the Desert (1870, Najd Collection).
The conception of the painting was based on sketches Gérôme had made of the desert, but more importantly, on the photographs first taken by Bartholdi and later by Goupil on the expeditions he made with them. Both the panoramic backdrop and the precise style in which it is executed make Rider and his Steed in the Desert a fascinating example of the link between photography and Gérôme’s own painterly vision, based on precision draftsmanship and clear composition. The aesthetics of photography, a process that produced a unique image on metal, had many similarities to academic painting, and Gérôme used the new invention as justification for his obsessive drive for verisimilitude. 'Photography is a vocabulary that can guide artists in their translation of nature, an album in which they can find fresh ideas and new inspiration,' wrote the photographer Antoine Claudet. In this respect, Gérôme’s work also has to be deciphered in the context of contemporary rationalist desires to organise and categorise knowledge, with the founding of the French archaeological institutes in Athens, Rome, and Cairo, and with the birth of the new field of ethnology.
Yet Gérôme skilfully played on his reputation for accuracy. While his travels to Egypt and his use of photography lent his Oriental visions the impact of eyewitness statements, Rider and his Steed in the Desert bore the seal of the artist's nostalgic imagination, perpetuating the notion of the North African desert as a theatrical, cruel, immutable, timeless place at a point when Egypt was, in fact, a fast-changing country and its society was undergoing modernisation from the top down. From 1850, French ships sailed from Marseille to Alexandria via Malta in seven days. From the 1870s, journeys became faster, and soon Alexandria had a rail connection to Cairo. Only three years before painting the present work, Gérôme had been sent to Egypt as part of the French delegation for the inauguration of the Suez Canal, turning Egypt into an international shipping thoroughfare. As Linda Nochlin observed, Gérôme’s paintings underlined 'a strategy of realist mystification', at a time when the Orient was fast becoming more accessible. 'Time stands still in Gérôme’s painting... [He] suggests that this Oriental world is a world without change.'
The theme of the rider comforting his mount had been developed by a number of French Romantic painters in the first quarter of the 19th century, notably by Théodore Géricault. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris owns a drawing featuring a similar composition, evidently a design for the frontispiece of a book never completed. Another version of this frontispiece was sold in the Hans E. Buhler sale at Christie's, London, on 15 November 1985. A drawing in the Bonnat museum in Bayonne has the scene transported to nineteenth-century France in Currassier auprès de son cheval blessé. Gérôme was a good friend of Bonnat, and may have come across the theme through Bonnat's enthusiasm for collecting Géricault drawings. Or again, perhaps the subject was suggested to Gérôme by a similar composition painted by Rosa Bonheur in 1852 (Sudeley House, Liverpool).
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