Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant (French, 1845 - 1902)
Property from a New York Estate
Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant (French, 1845 - 1902)

A Janissary

Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant (French, 1845 - 1902)
A Janissary
signed 'Benj. Constant' (lower center)
oil on canvas
47 ¼ x 31 ½ in. (120 x 80 cm.)
Acquired by the present owner circa 1975.
L'Illustration, Paris, vol. 79, 25 February 1882, illustrated.

Lot Essay

As a young artist, Benjamin Constant displayed an artistic temperament that did not correspond to the strict criteria of Academicism. He began his artistic education at the local art academy in Toulouse, where he had gone to live with two aunts after the death of his mother, but he did not flourish there. After his failure to win the Prix de Rome, the young artist left the halls of formal education.
It can be said that Constant’s true artistic and cultural education took shape during his voyage abroad in the early 1870s when the young artist set off to explore the culture of North Africa, most specifically Morocco, where he stayed for eighteen months. The two years that he spent traveling in the Orient left an indelible mark on Constant and would inform his choice of subject for decades. Once released from the constraints of the Academic tradition, Constant was free to pursue his own subject matter and style, and to develop and exploit his gifts as a colorist. From 1873, which marked his return to Paris, the panels and canvases he produced were elaborate studio productions based on the exotics props and souvenirs that he brought back from his travels. A contemporary photograph of Constant posing in his studio reveals an elaborate trove of tiles, carpets, and tapestries as well as more exotic items such as shields, swords, lamps, a lion’s pelt and even a stuffed leopard (fig. 1).
While his recreations were based on true to life objects that he collected, Constant’s unique interpretation of the East always involved an element of fantasy that appealed greatly to Western collectors, particularly in the United States. His fame in America was due in part to the efforts of his dealer, Adolphe Goupil, who marketed his paintings to an eager audience. Constant himself traveled to the United States, once in 1889 and again in 1893, and on both visits the artist and his work were warmly received.
Although Constant never returned to the Orient, the images of this exotic land haunted his memory. In 1887, he wrote to fellow artist Jospeh Felix Bouchor, who was embarking on his own North African adventure, ‘How happy you might be!...there you have…soft and delicate sun, comforting, pleasant to paint, with superb figures dressed in rags crouching along the walls, boundless horizons, beautiful oases. What a dream! (Letter from Benjamin Constant to Joseph Felix Bouchor dated Paris, December 30, 1887, Paris, Bibliotèque central des musées nationneaux, ms. 0581 [01], fol. 1-2).
Landscapes rarely appear in Constant’s compositions. Although in A Janissary, the artist has set his swordsman within a walled courtyard, he does offer the viewer a glimpse of the world beyond the wall. The arched windows of the bright white building in the background create a contrast to the brightly flowering trees which line the wall of the courtyard. The imposing figure of the Janissary, a Turkish fighter who stands with his shield and yatagan curved sword dominates the composition and Constant clearly delights in the strongly- saturated contrasting pigments of green and salmon pink of his garments, the rich earth tones of the tapestry draped over the stone wall and the flowering flora that defines the perimeter of the canvas. All is infused with the bright clear light of North Africa, the dappled sunlight spilling over the garden wall as if to beckon the viewer beyond the close world within.
The work is offered in an elaborate gold frame embossed in Arabic with the words 'Wa lā ghāliba illā-llāh' (There is no victor but God). This is the motto of the Emirate of Granada and of the Nasrid Dynasty, and the phrase is integrated into the decorative program of the Alhambra, which was built by the Nasrids.

(fig. 1) After a photograph by E. Bénard, Benjamin Constant's Studio, circa 1887.

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