Above all other Orientalist painters, Rudolf Ernst was a craftsman who used his exotic subject matter primarily as a vehicle through which to express his technical mastery of surface texture and colour. Like Ludwig Deutsch, he had a strong sense of plasticity and form, which was best expressed through his depictions of artefacts. His concern was not extreme ethnographic accuracy (indeed he frequently juxtaposed objects from different cultures) but to dazzle his wealthy patrons with paintings that have an almost tactile, three-dimensional quality.
These qualities played to the commercial demands of the day: Ernst was a popular exhibitor at the Salon, rated particularly highly by American clients who sought out his large scale works to decorate their vast houses. The sense of opulence exuded in so many of Ernst's paintings was well suited to the surroundings in which they would eventually hang.
Ernst was familiar with the cultures he depicted, and had visited Morocco, Turkey and the Moorish palaces of Spain. He used these trips to amass a vast array of different objects, which he would re-assemble in his studio, complementing the source material of his collection with extensive photographs and illustrated books.
The present work exhibits all the hallmarks for which Ernst is best known. Depicting a North African interior, it exudes a sense of comfort and informality, with each figure quietly absorbed in the task at hand. The picture plane is crowded with objects, creating an elaborate mosaic of exotic patterns, which play across surfaces as different as marble, tiles, earthenware, wooden latticwork and woven textiles. Most extraordinary is the use of a technique, unique to Ernst among Orientalist painters, of scraping directly into wet paint to enhance the textural quality of the picture surface. The rug, for example, has been combed through with fine lines to simulate the effect of a weave, while the lines around each of the tiles in the background have been scraped out to emphasise the mosaic-like construction of the patterned surface. The overall effect is to create a painting that is both soothing and entertaining, inviting the eye to wander across a panoply of interlinked objects, colours and textures.