Produced in around 1887, The Carpet Merchant portrays a scene in the Cairo markets, which Jean-Léon Gérôme had visited two years prior as part of his travels through the Middle-East and Africa. Much like Eugène Delacroix, the traveling informed much of Gérôme’s work on the Orientalist genre, and this piece is a beautiful example of that influence.
The painting depicts an internal scene at the court of the Rug Market in Cairo in all its color, which Gérôme and other Orientalist artists tend to exaggerate, portraying the East and the Muslim world as a somehow magical place. In the foreground of the scene, a group of brightly dressed men with exquisite beards and mustaches discuss the product on display, hanging from a balcony: a gigantic patterned rug. More rugs are strewn about the area, each with a different array of colors and patterns.
On the balcony, there is another group of men, observing the discussion that unfolds beneath with an interested but slightly bored attitude, indicating that this situation has been going on for some time. Surrounding the two main groups of men, a crowd of drably dressed people observes from the ground level, possibly servants of just common onlookers who are nevertheless differentiated from the traders by their outfits. Hidden in plain sight in a dark doorstep, an older man also watches the exchange looking like he is the most interested of all the observers in the scene.
The most interesting aspect of this piece is that it fits quite nicely in its historical context, and how the details lend more veracity. Take, for example, the clothing: Gérôme portrayed, in this painting, men wearing different styles of clothing, some of which mark them as being from specific places. In the main group below, the leftmost man is wearing lighter clothes and bears a ginger beard, a common trait in those of Moroccan origins, while the man in the blue outfit and green turban is wearing the style of headpiece preferred by the Ottomans. The man in red clothes beside him is dressed in Persian clothing, and the man talking to them with the long white beard in dressed in a Levantine manner.
Regardless of whether such diversity was portrayed on purpose or it was just how the painter remembered the Rug Market and its denizens, it provides a vivid depiction of how Europe saw the Muslim world at the height of colonialism.
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