Gérôme produced this bright piece in 1870, one of the many results of his travels through the Middle East and Africa, a tour which would help define Gérôme’s late career and subject matters. Now part of a private collection, this oil on panel painting transmits the artist’s attraction to the Muslim world of the 19th century, with its bright colors, ethnic variety, and almost mystic aura.
The painting depicts a tribal group of Arabic people making their way through a desert, using a variety of means of transportation common to their area and time: some ride horses, others ride camels or dromedaries, but most of them proceed on foot. There seems to be a hierarchy related to that, where those riding animals seemingly being wealthier or older than those walking, which is to be expected.
Such a group occupies the foreground of the piece, with three riders on horseback who appear to be slightly distant from the bulk of the group, which we can see further in the back with some people walking in the space between the group of riders and the main group. This is set in an arid background, where the ground is sand and stone, the hills in the distance are almost naked of vegetation, and the sky is a mixture of a clean blue and suspended sand, rising from the movement of the troop.
What the exact roles of each of the characters in the painting would perform in their culture is uncertain, possibly even for the artist, but the wealth of detail their attire and personal belonging can, in hindsight, provide an insight into that world. One instance of this is that all men are armed with scimitars or sabers, sometimes even spears, suggesting an armed society, where carrying a weapon equals the status of male adulthood. This is a detail of Bedouin culture that would not pass unnoticed to a 19th century Frenchman, since carrying weapons openly had become a thing of the past in his land.
Many other exquisite details could be mentioned, from the colors chosen for the clothing, which indicate wealth and geographical proximity to the Ottoman Empire, to the decorated bridles and harnesses on the horses, even the horses themselves. Regardless of meaning, such attention to detail speaks lengths about Gérôme’s Orientalist interest in the people he portrays.
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