Some argue that Alberto Pasini was the most important and extensively traveled of all the Italian Orientalist painters. He enjoyed success both in his own country and in France, where he spent much of his time after 1851. Although educated at the Academy of Fine Arts in Parma, Alberto Pasini fled Italy and moved to Paris where he befriended other artists such as Eugéne Fromentin, Jules Dupré and Théodore Rousseau, who influenced the development of Pasini's technique. In 1855, when Pasini was having financial difficulties, he joined a French expedition to the Near East where he discovered his personal style - and what would become his tour de force: Orientalism. Unlike many of his contemporaries who created their Orientalist paintings in Paris studios based on secondary accounts and arranged studio props, Pasini undertook numerous trips to the Middle East.
His first excursion in 1855 sent him through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, to the Persian Gulf and Teheran where he finally settled for over two years, taking commissions from the Shah. His introduction to the Near East came through the diplomat Prosper Bourée who had asked him in 1855 to accompany him on a mission to Persia, in place of the ailing Théodore Chassériau who had employed Pasini in his studio. At the conclusion of his duties with Bourée, Pasini spent fifty-two days traveling through Armenia to reach Turkey and subsequently Egypt. This expedition proved so inspirational for the Italian artist that he found revisiting the regions impossible to resist.
Pasini's oriental scenes incorporate superb draghtsmanship and a great sensitivity to color and are, despite their looser brushwork, remarkably similar in overall effect to those of Edwin Lord Weeks. His 'technical skill, sense of color harmony and excellent treatment of light make one regret that his delightful paintings are so rarely to be found.' (L. Thornton, The Orientalist Painter-Travellers, Paris, 1994, p. 142). Pasini's desire to replicate the colors he found in the East is echoed in his writings which were published in l'Album della Esposizione Belle Arti, Turin, in 1863 upon returning to France:
En Oriente, particulier en Perse et en Asie Mineure, de sorte que là où la végétation existe, elle brille d'un éclat que nous ne pouvons imaginer en Europe, le vent ressemblant à un feu de Bengale, pas seulment à cause de la clarté de l'air, et de l'éclat du soleil, mais également du fait du contraste avec l'aridité grise de la region. (C. Juler, Orientalistes de l'Ecole Italienne, Paris, 1992, p. 190).
In the present lot, it is apparent that 'Pasini was struck by the delicacy of the light in the East. His treatment of the play between shadow and the sun and his almost photographic representation of architecture and figures are a world apart from the imaginary exoticism of earlier Orientalist paintings.' The artist 'excelled in group compositions of horses, their shiny rumps towards the spectator, held by simple soldiers who mix with merchants and passers-by' (L. Thornton, The Orientalist Painter-Travellers, 1828-1908, Paris, 1983, p. 124). His juxtaposition of different social types brought together by the common bonds of trade and religion, his natural sense of composition and strong sense of realism, combine in the present work to create an image as grand as Mercato in Oriente.
Pasini painted a great number of Constantinople market scenes (fig. 1), usually including certain recurring motifs: horses, a splash of pink or light blue to pick out the womenfolk, a jumble of goods in the foreground, and a dominating background motif - often a minaret. He was intimately familiar with the city, visiting it often: it was relatively close by, he enjoyed strong political connections there (he had been commissioned in 1867 by Sultan Abdul Mecit to paint equestrian military scenes), and the general populace was still wedded firmly to its traditions (C. Juler, Orientalistes de l'Ecole Italienne, Paris, 1987, p. 192).
Mercato in Oriente was most likely painted during his second trip to Constantinople from 1867 - 69 and coincided with the Sultan's commissions. He coupled his inspiration from his trip to Spain with the great Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme and the lavish setting to create the energy and composition of the present lot. Both Spain and Gérôme doubtlessly influenced the artist, the former with its bright and exceptional color combinations, and the latter with his sublime mastery over issues of composition and space. Pasini's trip to Venice in 1876 also had tremendous impact on his work; the city's opulent decadence is mimicked in the jewel-like chromatic feast of Venetian Byzantine domes and baroque façades. Pasini's outstanding ability to render architecture accurately and theatrically, allowed him to use expressive Oriental structures as backdrops for his compositions. In Mercato a Costantinopoli (fig. 2) he recreates the same market scene as in the present lot, but instead, in front of the steps to the Yeni-Cami. Though the architecture in the present lot is not immediately identifiable, it does bear resemblance to the structural elements of the Topkapi Palace complex (fig. 3).
The colorful groupings of women draped in shades of red, yellow and blue juxtaposed with the brown palette of the male groupings creates a sense of expansion and rhythm within what appears to be just a crowd. The feeling of depth is increased but most importantly the viewer's eye is invited to wonder through the composition and focus on fluid details. The experience of viewing the present work is similar to that of a curious traveler entering a foreign space - one's point of interest and focus shifts each time a brighter, more impressive delight is discovered in the composition.
By 1870, Pasini's reputation as one of the greatest Orientalist painters was assured; he had won multiple gold medals, successfully exhibited at the Salon, participated in the Exposition universelle and the Venice Biennale, was awarded the Legion of Honor and the museum in Nantes acquired one of his works to display in their permanent collection.
We would like to thank Marco Bertoli for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
(fig. 1) A. Pasini, Les Eaux-Douces d'Europe, Constaninople, Private collection. Photo courtesy: M. Newman Ltd. London
(fig. 2) A. Pasini, Mercato a Constantinopoli, Private collection.
(fig. 3) A contemporary aerial view of Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.