Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Orientalism at Chantilly

The Chantilly estate outside Paris is holding a major exhibition of orientalist paintings, writes David Tresilian

Orientalism at chantilly
Orientalism at chantilly
Al-Ahram Weekly

Best known today for its horses, with the Prix du Jockey Club and Prix de Diane races being essential parts of the French social calendar, the Chantilly estate a little to the north of Paris has recently opened a new exhibition space in its former tennis court building, the salle du jeu de paume, behind the estate’s vast 18th-century stables.

The galleries have been designed to exhibit work connected to the estate, now owned by the Institut de France and formerly the seat of the princes de Condé, scions of the former French royal family. Since the last aristocratic owner of the estate, the duc d’Aumale, was also governor of Algeria after the French conquest of that country in the 1830s and 1840s, there can have been few better subjects for the estate’s first exhibition than works taken from the duke’s own collection of 19th-century orientalist paintings. These form the core of the present exhibition, entitled “Delacroix and the Dawn of Orientalism”.

The duke, fifth son of the French king Louis-Philippe, inherited the estate at Chantilly, made up of the famous castle, the extensive grounds, beautifully laid out in the 17th century by Le Notre, the designer of the gardens at Versailles, and the stables and other buildings, from his great-uncle in 1830. By this time, the estate was in a sorry condition: looted and then demolished during the Revolution, the chateau itself was in ruins, and all the moveable property of the prince de Condé, a prominent émigré and opponent of the Revolution, had been confiscated, sold off, or destroyed.

Growing up at court in the 1830s, the duc d’Aumale followed a military career, and at the age of 21 led the French attack on the smalah, or military encampment, of the emir Abdel-Kader in Algeria. Abdel-Kader was the leader and figurehead of Algerian resistance to the French colonisation of the country after the initial occupation of Algiers in 1830, and it was his final defeat at the hands of French forces in 1847 that truly began the French colonial period that lasted until Algerian independence in 1962.

Abdel-Kader spent his later years in exile in Damascus. As for the duke, following exile during the French Second Empire in the 1850s and 1860s, he devoted himself to rebuilding the chateau at Chantilly and building up an extensive art collection. Though not an adventurous collector by any means – he entirely ignored the art of the 1870s, 80s and 90s, the years when he was putting together his collection – the duke was at least a loyal one. His aim seems to have been to reconstitute the collection of his ancestors that had been sold off or confiscated during the Revolution.

Most of this would have been out of bounds in public collections or beyond even the very deep pockets of the duc d’Aumale by the time he started collecting, and so the duke seems to have filled out his collection with works done in the earlier 19th century when he was a young man, chiefly military scenes or orientalist paintings of Algeria and North Africa. These are ordinarily displayed with the rest of his collection in the picture galleries built when the chateau was reconstructed in a hodge-podge of 19th century historicist styles in the 1870s.

Today, they have been moved on a temporary basis to the jeu du paume, where they have been intelligently and scrupulously displayed with other early 19th century orientalist paintings from the Louvre in Paris and other French public collections. Visitors to Paris over the holiday period are well advised to visit Chantilly. The chateau and grounds have a melancholy charm in winter, the horses always draw enthusiastic audiences, and the new jeu de paume exhibition galleries have now put on a first exhibition that augers well for its programmes in the future.

From Egyptomania to artistes voyageurs: The exhibition begins by looking back to the early 19th century origins of European orientalist painting, identified with the “Egyptomania” that swept France following the invasion of Egypt by French forces led by Napoleon Bonaparte at the end of the 18th century and the subsequent publication of the Description de l’Egypte, a comprehensive account of the country lavishly illustrated with plates in multiple separate volumes.

Napoleon’s initial interest in invading and then occupying Egypt had been to weaken English power in the eastern Mediterranean and to assert French influence in the region. Following their defeat at the hands of an Anglo-Ottoman coalition backed by Russian forces, French forces were evacuated from Egypt and a temporary peace signed with England in the shape of the Treaty of Amiens. French interest in Egypt then became more cultural in character, and ancient Egyptian motifs began to appear in interior decoration, architecture and even furniture design under the first French Empire.

However, it was perhaps not until the 1820s and the Greek war of independence against the Ottomans that the characteristic iconography of later European orientalist painting began to appear. Romantic-period artists and writers, chief among them Eugène Delacroix and Victor Hugo, identified an oppressed people’s struggle for freedom from the “oriental despotism” of the Ottoman Empire in the Greek conflict, eventually bringing about European intervention while at the same time establishing archetypes for many later European attitudes.

In his poetry collection Les Orientales, for example, Hugo represented his “orientals”, chiefly Ottoman Turks or Arabs, as being by turns despotic, bloodthirsty, fatalistic, or romantically picturesque, and such attitudes were powerfully illustrated by Delacroix in his paintings of the 1820s and 1830s. It is these developments that the exhibition refers to in its title of “the dawn of orientalism,” illustrating them through sketches made by Delacroix during the artist’s first visit to Morocco in the 1830s and smaller works in oils, as well as through various works by other less well-known artists.

The exhibition comes with an exceptionally informative catalogue, and in it Nicole Garnier-Pelle, the curator of the Chantilly collections, writes that from about the 1830s on, when French military involvement in Algeria was growing and travel was becoming ever easier, a journey to the orient was fast becoming an essential rite of passage for young French artists, almost in the way that a period spent in Italy had been for those from previous generations. The emphasis, she writes, was on the search for new subject matter and artistic renovation.

By the time that Delacroix accompanied French diplomatic missions to Morocco and Algeria in the 1830s, gathering materials that fed into major orientalist canvases such as his Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, now in the Louvre, major patrons, too, had begun to demand paintings with orientalist subject matter. Some of this demand was undoubtedly official and even vainglorious, such as the paintings commissioned from the orientalist painter Horace Vernet, visiting Algeria for a second time in 1837, this time on the orders of Louis-Philippe, to record the war with Abdel-Kader. A small copy by Alfred Decaen of one of Vernet’s best-known paintings, the enormous Prise de la smala d’Abd el-Kader par le duc d’Aumale, which measures five by 21 metres, or over 100 square metres of canvas, and records the duke’s military victory, is included in the present exhibition, the original being virtually immovable at Versailles.

However, some of it was more painterly in character, with artists such as Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, Prosper Marilhat and Eugène Fromentin, traveling in Turkey, Egypt and Algeria at their own expense rather than on official missions and on their return producing paintings that focus on light, landscape and human figures more than they do on scenes of battle or military conquest. By this time, in the 1840s and 1850s, a taste for orientalist subject matter seems to have spread among the critical public, as well as among private buyers.

Thus, when he returned to France from Istanbul in the late 1820s, Decamps published a volume of lithographs of Turkish scenes, Garnier-Pelle writes, softening up the public for the paintings on similar themes he exhibited at the 1831 and 1834 salons.

An orientalist art market: The exhibition stops in the mid 1850s and thus well before the late 19th-century boom in orientalist painting that supported the career of the best known of the later painters, Jean-Léon Gérôme.

As well as exploring the taste of the duc d’Aumale, the late 19th century collector whose acquisitions provide the show’s core works, the exhibition is an opportunity to ponder the appeal of the vogue for oriental subject matter that developed in these years and to look in detail at works by Decamps, Marilhat and Fromentin, perhaps the most striking of those on display.

One of the duke’s most important earlier acquisitions, Vernet’s Scène d’Arabes dans leur camp écoutant une histoire, done in 1833 after the artist’s first visit to Algeria, undoubtedly has a tendentious character, since it shows conquering French troops being welcomed by Algerian forces and glossing over what was in fact a prolonged war of conquest. In her account of the picture in the exhibition catalogue, Garnier-Pelle points out that when this painting was first displayed at the 1834 salon it would have come up against some formidable opposition since Delacroix was exhibiting his Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement in the same show. The two paintings thus apparently nicely link together the two traditionally orientalist themes of military conquest and the supposed oriental subjection of women.

However, in researching the pictures shown at the early 19th century Paris salons, roughly between the 1820s and 1850s, Garnier-Pelle has discovered that only a very small proportion of them were orientalist. At the 1834 salon, for example, of the 1,956 pictures displayed only 36 were on orientalist themes, or 1.84 per cent, a figure that scarcely varies from one salon to the next. While some painters in these years specialised in orientalist subject matter, most others, notably Delacroix, turned to it in only an occasional fashion. Taken together with the small number of orientalist pictures on display at the Paris salons, this suggests that, aside from official painters such as Vernet, it was difficult to make a career out of producing exclusively orientalist paintings.

It may also suggest that aside from paintings designed for official purposes, often commissioned by the state, the messages encoded in the orientalist paintings did not necessarily find a ready market of private buyers, at least not unless they were contained in works ready to fight it out for attention with others in the already crowded Paris salons.

Of the paintings included in the present exhibition, perhaps those by Decamps, Marilhat and Fromentin are most likely to have caught the public’s eye. Born in Paris in 1803 and exhibiting work from the early 1830s, Decamps, the first of these, was the then leader of the orientalist school, Garnier-Pelle writes, attracting the public with his pictures of Turkish daily life, landscapes and animals. The duke owned three large works by Decamps, all done in the 1830s and included in the present show. Perhaps the most unusual is his 1839 picture Enfants turcs jouant avec une tortue (Turkish Children playing with a Turtle), in which the focus is on a block of stone in the centre of the composition around which everything else seems to gravitate.

The second of the three, Marilhat, along with Decamps a favourite of the duke’s, was also the most tragic. The son of a banker, he accompanied a German scientific expedition to Syria, Palestine and Egypt in 1831, staying on alone in the latter country, where he lived in the Delta. Upon his return to Paris some years later, he started to produce paintings of oriental scenes, often exhibiting them in the salons. In this he seemed to have had considerable success, with his Les Arabes syriens en voyage, part of the Chantilly collection, winning the gold medal at the 1844 salon where it was exhibited with another seven of Marilhat’s paintings. However, in 1847 he died at the age of only 36, Garnier-Pelle writes, “having lost his reason”.

Marilhat specialised in composite works, modeling the dome in his Souvenir de la campagne de Rosette (Egypte) on the Mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo and the minaret on the Mosque of al-Hakim, and he indulged in a taste for the picturesque, as well as for historical layering, in his Vue de Lattaquié in Syria. However, he was also interested in conveying light and landscape, as he did in Vue du Nil de Basse-Egypte, described in the catalogue as reminiscent of the works of the French landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. In this respect his work is similar to that of Eugène Fromentin, a third artiste voyageur, this time to Algeria in the 1840s. The exhibition includes a large work of his, La Chasse au héron (Algérie), a good two-thirds of which is taken up by a study of the sky.

Carefully researched and handsomely presented in the Chantilly estate’s new exhibition galleries, Delacroix and the Dawn of Orientalism is an engaging and continuously interesting show. Even for those familiar with the subject matter, its focus on the career of a single collector and on the early market for orientalist paintings is likely to provide much food for thought and reflection.

Delacroix et l’aube de l’orientalisme, domaine de Chantilly, Paris.

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