Greeting in the Desert,Egypt

Artist: John Frederick Lewis
Title: Greetings in the Desert, Egypt
Signed and dated 'J.F. Lewis / 1855' lower right
Medium: Oil on Panel
Size: 17.5x24in (44x61cm)

This painting of an encounter in the desert is full of wonderfully rendered detail and brilliant sunlight. The painting depicts a meeting between two Bedouin men, who have halted their camel caravans in the Sinai desert in Egypt.

"The Arabic transliteration that Lewis provides in the title means 'greetings' or 'peace to you.'. They extend their right hands as if to shake in standard European fashion, but their unclasped fingers suggest that they are in fact merely touching palms, as Bedouin custom demanded. The young servant of one of the men - probably the figure on the right, as he is dressed in the same brown and white stripes - joins the scene as well, his riding stick tucked at his side. A pair of scruffy yellow Armonty dogs, whose locked gaze mirrors the men's own, completes the composition.

The men, both bearded, are distinguished one from another by their headdresses and robes. The Art Journal believed that the differences 'may define respectively the Arab of the city and the Arab of the desert, or, some other distinction of condition or country' (The Art Journal, 1856, p.164). The man on the left wears a neatly wrapped white turban, while the man on the right wears a red striped kafiya, folded diagonally. The silk cord that would typically secure the cloth to his head is absent, suggesting that the infamous desert winds have stilled - at least for now. The man's silk and cotton qumbaz (robe) displays a common blue-and-white striped pattern. It is crossed in the front and held closed by an elaborately decorated red hizam (belt). Around the man's shoulders is a heavy brown and white striped abayeh, a traditional outer garment made of coarse hand-woven wool or wool and cotton blend.

Many of these articles of clothing - and indeed the bearded man himself - reappear in other works by Lewis. A strong case has been made that this figure is a self-portrait of the artist, dressed in Arab clothes. This twist to what at first appears to be a carefully rendered, and fairly straightforward, transcription of Middle Eastern life is typical of Lewis, and may help to explain the unending fascination of scholars, collectors, and popular audiences with his work, from the nineteenth century until today.

The left arm of this intriguing figure rests comfortably on the curve of his camel's neck. These animals were the constant companions of the Bedouin, providing them with everything from transport and commerce to food, shelter, and fuel. In his youth, Lewis had made his name as an animal painter and his expertise in the genre is well demonstrated here: from the tufts of soft hair underneath the camels' chins to their impossibly long eyelashes, to the wrinkles of skin around their lips and along their undulating necks, Lewis misses no detail of their peculiar anatomy.

That Lewis would demonstrate such a sophisticated understanding of Bedouin culture, and, at the same time, endeavor to subvert it with the tongue-in-cheek inclusion of an ambiguous Arab figure, should be expected from an artist who spent ten years living 'far away from the haunts of European civilization' in Egypt, and whose own biography continually shifted between professionalism and playful self-fashioning.

Unlike many artists who traveled in the Middle East, and sought to impress their audiences with a panoramic view of all they surveyed, Lewis chose to focus on a small range of subjects, and investigate them with a remarkable intensity of vision.

Between 1853 and 1860, Lewis painted and exhibited no less than 10 desert scenes, whose similarities with the present work are difficult to miss (fig. 1). Although it is not clear whether Lewis intended for these paintings to be read in chronological order, or as parts of a narrative series, the temptation to do so is great. In this context, the patterns of repetition that Lewis establishes - the same figure appearing in multiple scenarios, for example - only adds intrigue to the story. A watercolour painting exhibited in 1856, sold in Sotheby's New York on 18 April 2008, shares a nearly identical composition with the present work .

Source of this article was Sothebys
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