Born in Paris in 1822, Alfred Dehodencq received his early artistic education in the studio of Leon Coigniet. He made frequent journeys to Spain, Algeria and Morocco, and made his debut at the Salon in 1844, winning a gold medal in 1865.
After moving to Spain in 1849, the artist visited Morocco for the first time in 1853 and found himself captivated by its exotic energies: 'Tangers, Tétuan, Mogador, Rabat, Salé. J'ai cru en Perdre la tête' (L. Thorton, Les Orientalistes Peintres voyageurs, Paris, 2001, p. 118). He spent the next nine years dividing his time between Tangiers and Cadiz.
Dehodencq's work is remarkable for the way it captures the bustling streets and bourgeoning life of his adopted home. During his time in North Africa, he captured the exotic sights with incredible attention, detail and a surprising dynamism as in the Jewish Festival in Tetuan (fig. 1). He sent his completed oils back to the Paris Salon, where they were enthusiastically received.
Dehodencq referred to himself as being le dernier des romantiques, and his work draws upon the legacy of Delacroix; however, his ability to paint large figure compositions with painstaking detail and to convey the convincing illusion of truth owes much to the Realists. The honesty of his paintings and their almost violent energy is rarely demonstrated in the Orientalist works of his contemporaries. He differed sharply from the Romantic Orientalists, such as Delacroix, who preceded him. Delacroix, as Gabriel Seailles aptly put it, 'á vu cette nature africaine, comme un spectacle, d'un peu loin comme on voit un ballet d'opéra' (Seailles, Gabriel, L'Oeuvre de Dehodencq, 'Scénes de la Vie Marocaine: Dehodencq Orientaliste', Paris, p. 128). In other words, for his predecessors, 'the Orient' was a dream, a concept. For Dehodencq, it was his day-to-day reality. There is a sincerity of observation in his work that removes it from the mysterious realm of the exotic and brings to the streets of Morocco a tangible sense of presence.
Musiciens juifs dans les rues de Tétuan demonstrates the artist's preoccupation with each individual; all the physiognomies, costumes and poses are carefully observed and superbly detailed. In particular, women on top of building on the left side of the street reveal an incredible attention to the individual's interaction with the teeming city. Their costumes are accurate decpictions of Jewish North African garb (fig. 2). The simplicity of the architecture creates a backdrop for the movement and flow of the crowds, highlighting not only the exoticism of the place but also the life and culture itself.
This particular scene takes place in Tetuan, a city in the northern Rif Mountains in Morocco, on the Mediterranean Sea, a few miles south of the Strait of Gibralter. The area was formerly ruled by Spain, and during Dehodencq's visit to the city it was the capital of the part of Morocco under Spanish protectorate. Tetuan was at the time the home of a thriving Sephardic Jewish community, which immigrated from Spain after the Reconquista and the Spanish Inquisition, also known as the 'Expulsion.' The present work depicts a Sephardic Jewish Festival. Dehodencq often depicted the lively Jewish culture and painted Sephardi concerts, weddings and festivities in Morocco and in old Moorish Spain (R. Benjamin, Orientalism, Delacroix to Klee, p. 239). Musiciens juifs dans les rues de Tétuan is an example of his ability to convey movement and emotion through these scenes.
Like many of the Orientlists, Dehodencq painted scenes from the East to capture the attention of Westerners. 'Once Orientalist artists created their paintings, black and white versions appeared in popular European journals and newspapers, thereby disseminating images of a foreign and exotic way of life to a wider European public' (D. Schroeter, Morocco - Jews and Art in a Muslim Land, London, 2000, p. 131). Dehodencq's works were immediately published (fig. 3), especially because not many of the Orientalists focused their efforts on the Jewish traditions.
In this painting, the participants in the festival parade out of their quartier (represented in the painting by the arch behind them), preceded by musicians. Despite their position in the Arab society of Tetuan, Dehodencq portrays their celebration as a revelation not only of their pride in their history and their faith, but also of their culture's tenacious, brave and lively endurance. The picture depicts not only the splendor and exoticism of the Orient and the sunlight playing along the white walls of the city, but also the nobility of a group of people who actually live and thrive in the region. Musiciens juifs dans les rues de Tétuan is an unusual and honest portrait of life in Morocco.
(fig. 2) Photograph, Two Jewish Women, Morocco, 1860s, Collection of Dr. Paul Dahan.
(fig. 3) E. Dehodencq, La fête juive à Tétuan, large pen drawing.
(fig. 1) E. Dehodencq, Jewish Festival in Tetuan, Paris, c. 1858.