This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue critique of Pierre- Auguste Renoir being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute established from the archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein.
'One day, while I was painting a landscape in the neighbourhood of Algiers, I saw a man approaching who seemed to be dressed in purple and cloth-of-gold. He came down the path with great dignity, leaning on a stick; he looked like some magnificent prince out of the Thousand and One Nights. When the traveller reached me, my illusion vanished; my emir was nothing but a flea-bitten beggar. The sun, the divine sun, had enriched him with its light, and transformed his sordid rags into a royal robe... It's always the same, in Algeria. The magic of the sun transmutes the palm-trees into gold, the water seems full of diamonds, and men become the Kings from the East' (Renoir, quoted in F. Fosca, Renoir: His Life and Work, trans. M. Martin, London, 1961, p. 134).
'The question amounts to knowing whether the Orient yields to interpretation, to what extent it is open to this and, if to interpret it is not to destroy it... The Orient is extraordinary... It escapes conventions, it lies outside all disciplines, it transposes, it inverts everything, it overturns the harmonies with which landscape painting has for centuries functioned. I do not talk here of a fictional Orient' (Eugène Fromentin, quoted in M. Stevens, 'Western Art and its Encounter with the Islamic World 1798-1914', pp. 15-23, Stevens, ed., The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse: European Painters in North Africa and the Near East, exh. cat., London, 1984, p. 15).
A dos de chameau was painted in 1881, the year that Pierre-Auguste Renoir made the first of two visits to Algeria. In this rare picture from the year of that first journey - his first excursion abroad - Renoir has managed to combine the feathered, darting Impressionist brushstrokes with the exotic Orientalism invoked by the theme of the man on the camel himself, shown against a bright desert background that appears in a haze that manages to conjure a sense of water, sky and sand. This picture formed a part of the celebrated collection of William S. Paley, the media magnate and founder of CBS; he donated it to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which later deaccessioned it.
Renoir was the only one of the original Impressionists to venture to Algeria, and indeed a part of his motivation lay in his desire to create something that went beyond Impressionism. Increasingly, despite the success that his paintings were having, especially in the form of the portrait commissions he was receiving from ever-increasing circles of Parisian society, Renoir was feeling discontent with his own work, and sought a new impetus. This came with his travels in 1881 and 1882, when he visited Algeria, before also travelling to Italy. During 1882, he would visit both countries again, showing the importance of that first journey.
Renoir's first voyage to Algeria came about in part because of his increasing success. Because of the purchases and commissions of his work, he was able to afford to travel. At the same time, this popularity also gave Renoir the cause to go abroad: he was exhausted after his exertions upon one of his portraits, that of the two daughters of the banker Louis Raphael Cahen d'Anvers; that picture is now in the São Paulo Museum of Art. This fatigue may in part account for the relatively modest number of pictures that he created in Algeria and their consequent rarity. This was compounded by the fact that, during his second trip, he was initially recovering from pneumonia and so again created less than he had initially intended. At the same time, it appears that Renoir had the same dilemma that he would later face in Venice: why paint when there is so much at which to look? For this reason, A dos de chameau is all the rarer as it shows an Algerian theme that is clearly based on observation.
Renoir was fascinated by Algeria, and was soon writing to a host of people about its various charms. Soon after his arrival, he told his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, 'I shall be here for another month, I don't want to leave Algiers without bringing back something of this marvellous country' (Renoir, quoted in N. Wadley, ed., Renoir: A Retrospective, New York, 1987, p. 143). Elsewhere, he enthused more elaborately: 'When one has seen Algeria one loves it. The farmers are making enormous fortunes, properties are increasing in value and in ten years Algiers will certainly be the most beautiful city in the world' (Renoir, letter to Mme Bérard, quoted in R. Benjamin, ed., Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee, exh. cat., Sydney, 1997, p. 133). In particular, though, Renoir was enthralled by the intense light there, as he explained to his son, the film director Jean Renoir: 'Everything is white: the burnous they wear, the walls, the minarets, the road... and against it, the green of the orange trees and the grey of the fig trees' (Renoir, quoted in J. Renoir, Renoir, My Father, London, 1962, p. 211). It was this quality in the light that Renoir would explain to Georges Rivière was able to transform the world around him, making beggars appear as kings and water as gleaming diamonds. That same light is visible in the radiance of A dos de chameau, with its hazy background suffused with dazzling luminosity. This light is considered to have been one of the most important legacies of Renoir's journey to Algeria, as it would result in a far greater use of whites in many of his subsequent works, including the Déjeuner des canotiers which he created shortly afterwards and which is suffused with light.
Initially, that light had proved elusive. Renoir had written to Théodore Duret that, 'I wanted to see what the land of sun was like. I am out of luck, for there is scarcely any at the moment. But it is exquisite all the same, an extraordinary wealth of nature' (Renoir, quoted in S. Monneret, Renoir, trans. E. Read, London, 1989, n.p.). However, the situation soon changed, and he returned from his two trips to Algeria with a small string of pictures celebrating the people and landscapes there, be it in A dos de chameau, in his image of a banana plantation, his swirling painting of a Fête arabe which was subsequently bought by his friend Claude Monet, or his likenesses of some of the girls and women he met there, be they French or Algerian, as well as smaller studies taken from life.
In visiting Algeria, Renoir was following in the steps of an important artistic tradition, and indeed amongst the hordes of Orientalists he discovered several companions as well as his own brother-in-law. The most important precedent for Renoir in his journey to North Africa was doubtless his great hero, Eugène Delacroix. Delacroix had briefly visited Morocco in 1832 as part of a diplomatic mission and his experiences there had marked him greatly, providing pictorial material for the rest of his life. Renoir himself had paid tribute to Delacroix's pictures of the Arabian world in several of his pictures: in 1870 he submitted Femme d'Alger to the Salon, where it was exhibited; this was a clear homage to Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement and is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Two years later, Renoir created another homage, a so-called harem scene which was refused by the Salon and is now in the National Museum of Art, Tokyo. Four years later, he made a more direct reference to Delacroix in his copy of that artist's La noce juive, now in the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. Each of these pictures revealed Renoir's fascination both with his predecessor and with the world that he had explored in North Africa. It appears that much of that fascination with Delacroix was reinforced by Renoir's own journey to the Arab world: like his predecessor, he found a brilliant landscape peopled with noble characters such as the man shown in A dos de chameau. As he told his son, despite the encroaching industrial world that had come with the French invasion of 1830, 'There are still shepherds in the mountains who look like princes in The Arabian Nights' (Renoir, quoted in J. Renoir, op. cit., 1962, p. 212).
The importance of A dos de chameau is reflected in its provenance, as it was formerly owned by the media magnate William S. Paley. The president of CBS, Paley was a prominent figure in the business and social world of the United States especially during the post-war era. Paley amassed a significant art collection, and met Pablo Picasso in person. He gave A dos de chameau to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, an institution of which he was an enthusiastic patron and, between 1968 and 1972, served as its president.