John Singer Sargent was one of the best-travelled painters of his generation. However, he is best known as the painter of European high society, whom he painted in the exclusive Salons of cities such as London, Paris, and Venice, rather than as an Orientalist painter.
Sargent's reputation belies a deep fascination with North Africa and the Middle East, to which he made four trips in his lifetime. As Richard Ormond writes: 'His enthusiasm then for the diverse ethnic population of Tangiers, for example, impressed his fellow traveller Dr James White of Philadelphia: "Sargent, who knows Algiers and Egypt and North Africa thoroughly, says there is nothing so savage and picturesque and thoroughly Oriental to be seen anywhere else, and so far as Algiers and Egypt go they don't compare with this"'. (quoted in R. Ormond and E. Kilmurray, Sargent, exh. cat, Tate Gallery, London, 1998-1999, p. 187)
Sargent's first two trips to the Middle East - in 1890-91 and again in the summer of 1895, when he visited Morocco - were in part intended to provide him with material for his huge mural commission for the Boston Public Library, The Triumph of Religion, which included a number of Old Testament Scenes, and illustrations of Pagan Gods. Sargent sought inspiration in the architecture of ancient Egypt, and in the features and costumes of the region's contemporary inhabitants, filling his sketchbooks with images of hieroglyphs, wall reliefs and quickly sketched portraits, whom he would much later turn into prophets. 'Taken together the studies show a range of physical types, from elderly bearded and turbaned figures to younger men in similar garb...Tacking marks clearly visible at the canvas margins suggest repeated scrutiny in the studio, although it seems undeniable that Sargent actually painted these works while in Egypt and the Middle East in 1891...Sargent also made a special excursion to the Faiyoum region north of the Libyan desert.' (R. Ormond, op. cit, p. 189)
The exact location of the present work is uncertain, although it probably dates to one of two journeys described above, as a study of two draped women (fig. 1) and several other related sheets bear very close similarity to the veiled women described in the present work. Moreover, given that Sargent mostly limited his output to sketches and watercolours when travelling, and these were often intended as source material for other, more finished, works, it may also be surmised that the present work was painted after his return from his travels. Richard Ormond has suggested that the present scene may depict the Turkish cities of either Bursa or Constantinople, which Sargent visited in his journey of 1891.
Richard Ormond will include the present work in volume 5 of his catalogue raisonné on the artist, The complete paintings of John Singer Sargent, Figures and Landscapes, 1883-1899.