"In Marrakesh, the fifth day of the week (Khémis) was market day", recounts Félix Marcilhac (op. cit., p. 52). "An enormous crowd approached the ramparts, pressing towards the walls of the city. Peasants from the mountains, farmers from the plains, and craftsmen from all the surrounding villages came to present their produce. The veiled women offered linens that they had themselves woven on the floors of their homes. In front of Bab el Khémis, one of the doors of the city, the people all gathered. A large mound, formed by the ancient accumulation of debris and silt (above a gaping ravine flooded in periods of rain by a wadi that is as impetuous as it is providential) served as a meeting place". This unique view, from one of the only doors in Marrakesh where the crenellated ramparts are still in perfect condition, awakened the imagination of Jacques Majorelle as soon as he arrived in Morocco in 1917. In a letter to Etienne Cournault written in October of that year he noted that Marrakesh was a "surprising city whose mysterious beauty I will, undoubtedly, never fathom."
The mix of carpet, linen, camel, and goat merchants created a dynamic image which constantly renewed itself with the weekly market, and differed considerably from that of the medina's 'sedentary' shopkeepers. Those women, in particular, who travelled from far away villages, revealing only their eyes from underneath the long clothes, continually captivated Majorelle. He was fascinated by their statue-like elegance and their slow, graceful gestures. They eventually evolve from mere background figures to become the principal subjects of several major works by Majorelle, including the present painting.
Majorelle depicted the El Khémis Souq throughout his career, and the subject therefore provides a barometer for the evolution of his creative process. He went from an almost Impressionistic touch, using a dynamic palette characteristic of the period 1922-24 (fig. 2), to thick, black contours that remind us of a stained glass window (fig. 3), to eventually reaching an extremely stylized simplification of both line and color. In the early 1930s he heightened his gouache with gold and silver. The gold and silver highlights, which had first been used on black paper with a purely decorative aim, quickly acquired a more primordial role, as testified by Robert Boutet: "Originally this new process found itself in the use of gold and silver, giving his first works a decorative look sometimes similar to that of precious Persian art [...]. After much perseverance and study, Majorelle finally achieved his goal. He released the metals from the decorative quality that they inevitably gave to the work and succeeded in giving them, overall, the same effect as colors, which was a genuine miracle" ('The Atlas Kasbahs painted by Majorelle', in La Vigie Marocaine, April 1929).
The Souq el Khémis epitomizes this technique and is a high point in Majorelle's oeuvre. Of an exceptional size, this composition captures the viewer's attention with its remarkable detail, its marriage of vivid silver and gold. It is no doubt for this very reason that the work was chosen to illustrate the catalogue cover of the major Majorelle restropective exhibition held in 1999-2000 at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy and the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.