Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (French, 1845-1902)
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Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (French, 1845-1902)

An Afternoon Idyll

Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (French, 1845-1902)
An Afternoon Idyll
signed 'Benj. Constant' (lower left)
oil on canvas
24 ¼ x 39 ½ in. (61.6 x 100 cm.)
Joseph Kossar, New York, circa 1955.
Private collection, New Jersey.
Their sale; Christie's, New York, 28 October 2013, lot 81.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and Toulouse, Musée des Augustins, Benjamin-Constant: Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism, 4 October 2014 - 31 May 2015, no. 212.
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Arne Everwijn
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Lot Essay

Born in Paris into a Languedoc family, Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant trained in Toulouse at the local Academie before moving to Paris in 1866. He enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts and completed his training under the academic master Alexandre Cabanel. His studies were interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War and the young artist never resumed his formal training. Instead, in the early 1870s he travelled to Spain, and fell under the spell of the Mudejar architecture of Andalucia.
From Spain, Constant followed in the footsteps of Mario Fortuny and moved on to Morocco. Although he only intended to stay in North Africa for a short time, he remained and travelled around Morocco for almost two years. When he finally returned to France in 1873 he did so with a rich collection of Islamic artefacts. He filled his studio in the Pigalle district from floor to ceiling with tiles, jewellery, pottery and other treasures amassed on his travels. “Carpets were hung on the walls, textiles swagged over balconies, plump, embroidered cushions lay on divans, providing the artist with an exotic background for his paintings, executed for over a decade following his journey” (L. Thornton, The Orientalists Painter-Travellers, 1828-1908, Paris, 1994, p. 26) (fig 1). Constant's newly stocked studio was thus transformed into an elaborate stage set, elements of which appear throughout his oeuvre. He also drew from a rich roster of local beauties who modeled consistently for him. With every costume change, a new composition was formed; an even more idealistic notion or the East that fed the voracious Western appetite for images of these exotic lands and their people.
A number of painters were inspired by the custom that allowed women to go out onto the rooftops without being seen to converse with their neighbours, observe the bustling streets bellow or to simply enjoy the coolness of the evening. Eugène Delacroix was the first to take notice of this, reporting, in the evenings, he had to carefully spy on the women on the terraces to avoid stones and gunshots. Inspired by what he had seen in Tangiers, Benjamin Constant often returned to this theme, which fascinated him and he repeated more than any other, in turn inspiring other artists such as the poet Emmanuel Ducros to write: 
To the terrace, in the evening, the women come seeking
the day’s forbidden fresh air
At last, the veil drops, heads bare,
Only a bird can glimpse these graces charming.
What use the beauty proper to their race?
Their soul’s essence but wasted treasure
No hope of love, with smiles made to measure
Oh! Only a lifeless body for the master to embrace.
See them gazing far off, lost in the horizon
Where everything shines brighter than this gilded prison
It is not of jewels that almahs dream;
They have, these poor flowers quarantined,
Stifled desires that rise heavenward
While despair lies buried in their hearts, unbidden and untoward.
Set on a rooftop, An Afternoon Idyll depicts a late afternoon with a storm brewing over the distant sea. Four young women who have chosen to escape the afternoon heat with their musician and chaperone, sit indolently atop a stucco divan laid with rich tapestries in the open air on a rooftop. The four women exude an air of indifference, perhaps instilled by the intense heat of a Moroccan afternoon symbolized by the overturned pot of geraniums at their feet. The broad expanses of cream and pink stucco are punctuated by the brightly clad figures languidly spread across them, while just below and in the background another figure leans over the balustrade looking out to the sea. The juxtaposition of the darkening skies against the bright blue of the sea and bright costumes of the young women brings out all the exotic colours, intense light effects and richness of texture that made the work of Constant so popular in his day.

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