EL VIEJO NILO
Charles Théodore Frère (French painter) 1814 - 1888Near Manfalout, Egypt, s.d.oil on panel6 1/2 x 11 3/8 in. (16.5 x 28.8 cm.)signed T.H. FRERE. (lower left)
Drawn to landscape painting from an early age, Frère began his studies with Jules Coignet (1798-1860) and Camille Roqueplan (1803-1855). A transformative trip to Algeria led to Frère's first Orientalist painting, exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1839. In 1851, Frère traveled to Greece, Constantinople (modern Istanbul), Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Mesmerized by his geographic surroundings, as well as by the local culture, Frère would dedicate the last three decades of his career to Orientalism.
The present work, entitled Near Manfalout, Egypt, features both the geography with which Frère is most closely associated and the formal qualities that would make his name. Most conspicuous, perhaps, is the narrow, rectangular shape of the panel – a favorite silhouette of Frère's, and of Orientalist painters more generally. The transcription of a flat, featureless landscape compelled European artists to revise the picturesque conventions they had learned at home, and seek new answers for their compositions. Often, they adopted a panoramic format in order to accommodate the expansive vistas that confronted them. The best of these artists were energized by the unfamiliar process; the works of lesser painters dissolve into a monotonous expanse of sand, water, and sky.
Frère, of course, was among the best. In Manfalout, the exaggerated breadth of the wooden support is tempered by the composition that it contains. The towering palm trees and single minaret, silhouetted against the sky, are grounded in reality, but in Frère's capable hands, they are transformed into practical pictorial devices. Horizontal and vertical elements hang in exquisite balance, and, in their various permutations, are among the most recognizable features of Frère's art.
The intimate scale of this painting – reminiscent, in fact, of the watercolors that Frère produced in Egypt in 1869 – belies its affective power. It is as if the glow of the wooden panel derives from a warm light, embedded at its core. Each luminous, shimmering tone that the artist has touched upon its surface, a crescendo of magenta, pure gold, and the palest of gray-blue hues, seems to vibrate with an emotive – not merely chemical - intensity. Frère's sensitivity to the properties of light, and his attempt to translate them into paint, drew admiration in France from Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Eugène Boudin (1824-1898), and has led some scholars to locate the roots of Impressionism in his Orientalist paintings. Such historical connections are not necessary to promote Frère's art, however, or to appreciate his palette. In his ability to replicate the seemingly impossible colors of the desert at dusk, Frère is virtually unsurpassed in European art.
Despite such heady atmospheric effects, never in Frère's art is that quality of realism - for which nineteenth-century Orientalist painting was also renowned - entirely abandoned. (Indeed, the affinity of Frere's paintings with contemporary photographs is often remarkably close.) Here, Frère's ethnographic concerns are readily apparent: The foreground of the picture contains an abundance of incidental cultural detail, from the cargo-laden camels to the well-wrapped turbans of their Arab partners. The cluster of fellaheen (peasant women) crouching by the water's edge, moreover, fetching water and rinsing clothes, reminds us of the natural abundance of the Nile, and its importance to the daily rituals of Egyptian life.
The location of the present work was an important one for nineteenth-century travelers, and for intrepid artists as well. Located ten kilometers north of the large town of Asyut, Manfalout stood at the junction of the Nile and the desert road to Kharga Oasis. European tourists would often stop here before embarking on their desert journeys, gathering supplies and, if they had time, admiring the local architecture. A small Coptic church, dedicated to St. Mark, was a highlight of the tour.
A paper label attatched to the reverse includes the title of the work, and the name "C.W. Hutchinson."
This catalogue note was written by Dr. Emily M. Weeks.
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