Frederick Arthur Bridgman was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in November 1847. After his father's death, Bridgman's mother moved the family to the Northeast, eventually settling in Brooklyn. His early talent for draughtsmanship was revealed in 1863 when the artist began an apprenticeship as an engraver at the American Bank Note Company. He simultaneously enrolled in evening art classes at the Brooklyn Art Association. He often painted in the early morning hours, rising at four o'clock. in order to leave enough time for his daily commute to Wall Street.
In 1867 he began studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was placed in the atelier of the acclaimed Orientalist artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. Bridgman was one of only five American students admitted that year. Under Gérôme's teaching, Bridgman developed a reputation as one of the most important Orientalist artists of the era. On a trip to Spain in 1872, Bridgman experienced the clean air, intense sunlight, and Moorish aesthetics of Spanish architecture. He was also exposed to the sensuous colors of the Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny, who inspired a lightening of Bridgman's palette and kindled his interest in the exotic lands that lay across the Straights of Gibraltar.
Bridgman's many visits to North African countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, gave the artist a deep insight into the lives of the people he encountered there. Because he traveled so extensively, his work demonstrates a greater sense of authenticity than that of many of his contemporaries. His ability to render scenes of everyday life with a delicate, color-infused brush solidified his fame as the foremost American Orientalist painter.
He achieved great success at the Paris Salons of 1877, 1878 and 1879 with a group of paintings portraying life in the ancient Near East, including The Funeral of a Mummy, which was purchased by James Gordon Bennett, then owner of The New York Herald. In 1881 Bridgman was elected a member of the National Academy of the United States and in 1889 five of his works were displayed in the Paris International Exposition. He was made an officer of the Légion d'honneur in 1907 and was awarded silver medals at the Expositions Universelles of 1878, 1889 and 1900.
Scène prise au Maroc depicts a narrow cobblestone street, dappled in warm sunlight. The attention to detail, particularly in the horses, the figures' clothing and the architectural decoration around the door reflects the artist's desire and ability to portray his subjects realistically. The luminous, visible brushstrokes reflect his Impressionistic style.
The scene depicted here takes place in Morocco because throughout the Magreb 'hands of Fatima' are painted on tiles, door knockers, above doorways, and outlined in nails on the brightly colored arched doors that are characteristic of the region (fig. 1). Sometimes also called hamsa which means 'five' in Arabic and Hebrew, these symbols are named after Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammed whom Allah chose to receive the words of the Qu'ran, the holy book of Islam. The hand is a folk symbol used in both Muslim and Jewish cultures to ward off the 'evil eye' of envy and predates both Islam and Judaism.
Bridgman's skillful use of light transforms what might seem like an ordinary street scene into an intriguing interaction among the figures. Most of the figures in the painting are covered by a shawl, obscured by shade or turned away from the viewer. The only visible face in the composition is that of the woman, which draws the viewer to the entrance of the building and encourages us to wonder what lies beyond its shadowy, half-opened door. The woman bows forward slightly, as if beckoning the other figures, and the viewer, to enter, alluding to the mystery of the exotic and the unknown.
The present lot has been authenticated by Dr. Ilene Susan Fort, the Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
(fig. 1) Door front with hamsas, Morocco.