Gérôme passed through Istanbul at the end of several long winter trips that turned into safaris at times, which included Egypt, the Sinai and the Holy Lands, in the winters of 1857, 1862, 1867 and 1878. We know for certain that he stopped in the region on his way home in 1867, and that he was there in March of 1875.
Gérôme was an indefatigable traveller. He seemed always to be on the go, even into his seventies. They were often long trips, sometimes of several months. One wonders how he got so much work done. When his studio assistant, the sculptor Decorchemont suggested he should slow down a bit, he replied, 'You really think that I have the time to slow down at my age?'
It would be nice to think that on the trip of 1875 - a trip made explicitly to Istanbul - that he was accompanied by his friend, the great Italian Orientalist, Alberto Pasini. But we do not know; Pasini had tried to visit Istanbul in 1874, but was discouraged by Turkish political events and returned home. He specialized in views of Istanbul and its palaces and surrounding landscape, usually populated with small crowds of escorted Turkish women in their all-encompassing bukors of a single bright colour: red, blue, orange, and yellow, worn with a white hijab or veil in public, and bare-headed in their private gardens. Pasini really knew how to exploit these bright passages of strong local colours within natural settings. Such brightly-coloured over-garments can still be seen enlightening the countryside of Morocco.
But Gérôme, even if incited to stay longer by his friend Pasini, did not seem to sketch markets and gardens, but rather to have spent his time in the bazaar, looking for women's clothing. For soon after his visit, he painted a series of half-length genre portraits of women: two women, one mature, another a child. They were sometimes labeled as specific ethnographic types. Both were most likely from models in Paris, where he could find ethnographic types. The same model was used for the two versions of the Danse du Sabre dans un café, which Gérôme delivered to Goupil in 1875 - perhaps he had gone to Turkey just to buy a new costume for that painting. Six portraits have been depicted in my catalogue. The recorded titles of the portraits can not always be assigned with security: ours might be the one recorded in the Goupil Stockbooks as Circassienne in one entry the Femme assise voile vert in another, for her veil - though now blackened, as often happens with greens - still is green as it passes over her neck, probably because of the white lead in the skin tone. Even so, some of the other not-well-identified entries and mentions elsewhere cannot all be sorted out.
Even though all are wondrous mixtures of colour and decorated fabrics, this seems to be the most sumptuous of all, with the figure dressed in a very light-blue jacket with gold-embroidered decorations against a rich burnt-Pompeian red background. Gérôme is a wizard at inventing new colour schemes that work, for instead of toning up the blue, or toning down the intensity of the red background, or increasing the blue, he balances it with the gold embroidery and lace of the jacket, and by the deeply coloured rug upon which her arm reposes that ends a diagonal with the dark upper right corner, and crosses the diagonal of the baton in her hands. She is not on the main axis, and subtle areas of graded lights hold her left shoulder, her bosom and her hand in a tight composition that supports the vertical setup through her nose. I mention all these details because they are so subtly rich that they are simply masterful. The pensive face is above a contraposto that does not disturb the pensive expression on her face. The play of elements is surprising: the solid pattern of the rug makes that of the jacket even more delicate. The hand is absolutely beautiful, both in accuracy and in its absent-minded repose.
We are grateful to Professor Gerald Ackerman for preparing the above catalogue entry.