When the German artist Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904) visited Damascus in December 1888, he wrote in his diary about exploring the city and coming across a great subject for a painting. His eyes had alighted on the 8th-century Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest in the world, and built after the Muslims conquered Damascus in 634 AD. The result is what Arne Everwijn, Senior Specialist in European and Orientalist Art, describes as ‘a fantastic picture, which taps into the richness of Middle Eastern culture’.
As a non-Muslim, Bauernfeind was not allowed to enter the holy site, so he bribed the guards to let him observe the comings and goings of the worshippers from the forecourt. The picture incorporates the doorway's threshold, which is partly covered by a richly decorated carpet that divides the viewer from the spectacle, reinforcing the artist’s outsider status.
‘Bauernfeind was one of the great Orientalist painters of the 19th century,’ says the specialist. ‘He travelled to the Middle East and tried to capture daily life there, documenting the exotic mystery of a foreign culture for European and American collectors.’
Bauernfeind was a master of technical detail, and his painting Forecourt of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus (1890) is both an historical record and a beautifully balanced composition. ‘He was trying to encapsulate everything in one picture,’ says Everwijn, ‘the texture, the rituals, the light, colour and detail. Not everything you see would have been happening at the same time.’
In fact, the picture was not painted until two years after Bauernfeind returned to Germany in 1890. He made watercolours in situ and subsequently painted two luxurious panels depicting the North gate and the West gate. ‘I think his intention had always been to paint the Mosque from multiple angles,’ says the specialist.
The picture of the North gate — The Gate of the Great Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, 1890 — was sold at Christie’s in 2008 for £2,505,250, making it the second most expensive work by the artist at auction.
‘Many Orientalist paintings are bought by Middle Eastern collectors and institutions today,’ explains Everwijn, ‘because there is no similar pictorial tradition in the Islamic world. A painting by an artist like Bauernfeind, who travelled in the region and could render detail almost photographically, is a window into the past.’
The Mosque was also badly damaged by fire in 1893, making Bauernfeind’s picture a rare document of what it once looked like.
‘There is no Western bias of superiority in the way he documents the scene’ — Arne Evenwijn
Everwijn says that Bauernfeind was inspired by his immediate surroundings. As a young artist he painted the landscape of his native Germany, until, like the French painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), he found his subject matter in the Middle East.
The reason why Bauernfeind stands alongside the other great 19th-century Orientalists like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Rudolf Ernst is because of his meticulous observation. He had trained as an architect, so had a keen eye for detail, and was obsessed with line, texture and material. ‘You can see this in the way he has painted the metalwork and the tiling,’ Everwijn points out. ‘It gives us a very clear picture of the craftsmanship that existed at the time.’
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Bauernfeind continued to travel, making a speciality of paintings from Jerusalem, Jaffa and Damascus. His pictures of the Syrian city were particularly prized because it was so dangerous — so fanatical were its inhabitants — and rarely visited by foreigners. He eventually settled in Jerusalem with his family in 1898, and died there in 1904.
Everwijn is keen to point out that unlike some Orientalist painters, Bauernfeind was never interested in sensationalising the East. ‘There is no Western bias of superiority in the way he documents the scene. It was simply an opportunity for his audience to observe a remarkably rich and glorious culture that had rarely been seen by foreigners.’