Born in Vienna, Rudolf Ernst settled in Paris in 1876 and took on French nationality. Along with his compatriot Ludwig Deutsch, Ernst had a significant impact as a representative of the second generation of Orientalist painters. The first generation such as Horace Vernet, Alexandre Colin and Eugène Delacroix, were inspired by political events, whereas the second generation such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, Gustav Bauernfeind, Ludwig Deutsch and Ernst were more interested in depicting scenes of daily life in the Middle East. Ernst's first taste of the East was sparked by journeys to Moorish Spain, Morocco and Tunis in the second half of the 1880s, followed by a visit to Istanbul and Egypt around 1890. Whilst on these travels he became very interested in the eastern styles of decoration, in particular tile-making, and by 1900 he left Paris to live in Fontenay-aux-Roses, where he decorated his home in an Ottoman style and lived among the oriental objects which figured so prominently in his paintings. Indeed, upon his return from Istanbul he asked the famous ceramicist Léon Fargue to initiate him to this art and Ernst became as well known at the turn of the century for his decorative 'Orientalist' tiles as for his paintings. It is no doubt for this reason that we find such exquisite attention paid to the tile decoration in all of Ernst's paintings including the beautiful glazed blue Iznik-style tiles in On the terrace. Typical of Ernst, he would use these same tiles in other composition such as The manicure also in this collection.
Ernst's gift was his capability to combine artefacts, textiles, colours, tiles and architectural elements of the East freely. However, this work is quite unique in that the geographic setting is more precise than usual. Not only are such large panoramic scenes rare in the artist's oeuvre, but the background looks very clearly inspired by the city of Tangiers in Morocco. There are similarities to La terrasse (fig. 1) which also alludes to a Moroccan geographic setting very like that of Tangiers. The same minaret appears in both paintings and is quite close in style to that of the mosque of the Aissaouas in the old city of Tangiers (fig. 1).
In On the terrace, two beautiful women in fine traditional costumes are engaged in leisurely activities on a languid sunny afternoon. Fine tunics, jewellery, headscarves and shoes were the essential elements in the wardrobe of a lady and the various musical props, the narghile water pipe, enhance the impression of leisurely Eastern lifestyle that would have fascinated the spectator of the Parisian Salons where Ernst had exhibited his works since 1877.