domingo, 9 de julio de 2017

LECTURA || Christa Zaat

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John Frederick Lewis (British painter) 1804 - 1876
An Arab Reading, s.d.
pencil and watercolour heightened with white on buff paper
26 x 34.3 cm. (10.25 x 13.25 in.)
private collection

Catalogue Note Sotheby's
In 1837 Lewis set out on his most momentous journey abroad which was to last thirteen years. He travelled first to Paris and then to Rome before moving eastwards to Corfu, Athens and Constantinople. In the summer of 1841, he crossed the Bosphorous to Asia Minor, and towards the end of the year he arrived in Cairo, where he remained for the next ten years. During this time Lewis devoted himself to recording every aspect of the city and of its inhabitants, and also explored the valley of the Nile and the desert landscape. He was one of the first British artists to explore the Near East.

Lewis resided in an old building in the Esbekiya district of Cairo and, according to Thackeray, he lived 'like a languid Lotus-eater – a dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life.' He adopted the dress and customs of Cairo's Turkish elite which enabled him to wander the streets, blend in amongst the people and observe 'the fantastic splendour; the variety of the houses, and archways, and hanging roofs, and balconies, and porches; and the delightful accidents of light and shade which chequer them; the noise, the bustle, the brilliancy of the crowd; the interminable vast bazaars with their barbaric splendour!' (see William Makepeace Thackeray, Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Cairo, 1845.)

After six years in Egypt, Lewis married his wife, Marian, in Alexandria. They returned to his house in Cairo where they lived for another four years before finally leaving for England in 1851. Over the next twenty five years Lewis continued to exhibit scenes of Oriental life, based on his store of sketches and remarkable collection of costume and artefacts.

Shortly before he died, Lewis received a glowing tribute from his fellow artist, Edward Lear: 'There never have been and there never will be any works depicting oriental life – more truly beautiful and excellent...For besides the exquisite and conscientious workmanship, the subjects painted by J. F. Lewis were perfect as representations of real scenes and people' (see letter to Lewis's wife Marian, 22 June 1875, private collection).

It is likely that Lewis noticed this elderly mullah busily copying holy script while he was in Cairo during the early 1840s. He swiftly noted down the essence of the scene using pencil with touches of watercolour and white bodycolour, brilliantly evoking not only the intensity of the sitter's concentration but also the lighting. The figure sits in half shade which contributes to the rapt quality of this depiction.

This picture was used as the basis for various other works including; The Commentator on the Koran (Fig 1. Elton Hall Collection), a highly detailed and finished watercolour which Lewis drew in 1852, one year after he returned to England. Here, the scribe makes notes from a manuscript, possibly the Koran. In the finished watercolour the composition is much larger and includes two young girls. Another study for the finished watercolour, very similar to the present work, inscribed 'Brussa: A Scribe' and dated 1842, was sold at Christie's on 24 March 1981, lot 167. The wise figure of the Arab scribe with his neat white beard, long nose and high forehead also appears in other works by Lewis, such as his Interior of a School, Cairo (Victoria and Albert Museum). Lewis also drew on this study for the watercolour The Arab Scribe, Cairo (Fig 2. private collection), which he exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society in 1852 (no.139) and engraved in the Art Journal six years later. In 1869 he used it a further time in the picture of The Commentator on the Koran which he exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Christa Zaat

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