Jean Caragea (or Caradja, several variant spellings are found) was governor (also known as voivod or hospodar) of Wallachia, 1812-1818. He was a member of one of the prominent Istanbul families of Ottoman Greeks known as Phanariots, from among whom were appointed governors of the Danubian provinces then under the Ottoman rule. Wallachia, now part of Romania, was one of these. His short reign there was unpopular, due to the epidemic of bubonic plague for which he was deemed responsible and for the fiscal hardships that he initiated. 'Caragea's plague' originated from within the entourage that he brought with him from Istanbul. Caragea himself survived both this and a subsequent conspiracy against him, and in 1818 issued a code of law that imposed high feudal taxes on the peasants and restricted the rights of women. At the same time he amassed vast wealth for himself, with which he fled when threatened by an uprising from the local landowners, aided by Russian sympathisers. He settled for many years in Pisa, and in the 1820s, like other influential Phanariot families to whom he was related, such as the Mavrocordatos and the Soutzos, actively supported the cause of Greek Independence.
Lewis, who had already established a reputation as an accomplished watercolourist with his lively scenes of Spanish life, left England for Europe again late in 1837. He spent much of the next two years in Italy, and in 1840 continued on to Corfu. From there he travelled to Janina on the mainland, and then Albania, and on to Corinth and Athens. His route further eastwards is likely to have been by sea to Izmir on the Turkish coast and then up to Istanbul, where in October his arrival was noted by his fellow artist Sir David Wilkie, another recent incomer from Britain.
Lewis may have encountered Caragea in Italy when he was there in 1838-39, but in view of the highly Ottoman surroundings and the costume in which his subject is depicted, it is perhaps more likely that the artist was introduced to the former governor when he travelled through Greece in 1840. However, although Caragea is known to have died in Athens in 1844, it is possible that he may have visited Istanbul beforehand, taking advantage of the revival of Phanariot fortunes during the 1830s, and that Lewis may have had the opportunity to depict him there in 1840 or 1841. Caragea wears the turban and robes of a wealthy Ottoman, his right arm resting on the large cushions of a typically Ottoman divan and holding the long stem of a pipe, while with his left hand he holds a fly-whisk; further along the divan is the tray of coffee cups and saucers commonly found in well-off Ottoman households. Other rich furnishings include a carpet and flocked wall-paper, but despite the comfort and luxury of his belongings the old man looks disillusioned and world-weary.
Lewis is best known for his dazzling representations of oriental life, and particularly for his gorgeously attired men and women, in richly appointed interiors. This watercolour is one of his earliest portrayals of an oriental character, just at the moment of the artist's first encounter with the East. With its vivid greens and reds, it is a fine example of the sparkling watercolours of Greek and Turkish individuals in colourful and exotic costume that Lewis made before he moved on to Cairo in 1841. This lively and freely-executed group represents Lewis's introduction to the oriental culture that was to make him famous.
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.