Rudolph Ernst (American, 1854-1932)
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Rudolph Ernst (American, 1854-1932)

Taking tea in the Harem

Details
Rudolph Ernst (American, 1854-1932)
Taking tea in the Harem
signed 'R. Ernst' (lower right)
oil on panel
28½ x 36 3/8 in. (72.4 x 92.4 cm.)
Provenance
Anonymous sale; Christie's, Glasgow, 28 April 1988, lot 530.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Special notice

No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium, which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.

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Alexandra McMorrow
Alexandra McMorrow

Lot Essay

The present work is arguably the masterpiece of an artist who was at his very best when depicting exotic interiors. Whereas Ernst often displays an incongruous juxtaposition of myriad items and detached figures, here the panoply of textures and patterns gel into a unified whole in which the two women are wholly absorbed. The overall effect is almost palpable: combining verisimilitude with an exotic sumptuousness that is quite different to the detached and marmoreal smoothness of Ernst's famous contemporary, Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Ernst's interior compositions in this vein were loosely inspired by his exposure to Moorish architecture in southern Spain, and to Morocco, in the early 1880s. Although they were assembled in his studio from a huge assemblage of artefacts, they therefore had more basis in fact than some of his freer interpretations of Oriental subject matter. They are typically characterised by the depiction of two women -- usually a noblewoman and a servant -- in a sealed, but richly decorated interior. .

In the present work, the noblewoman lies languorously on her daybed, a gentle breeze wafting through the sheltered window; her right hand droops gently to the side, holding a fan, echoing the hanging drapery at the top of the window. In the profusion of different materials, her clothing seems to mesh seamlessly into her surroundings. Her maid, meanwhile, moves in silently and gracefully from the left, almost gliding over the carpet, her serene expression echoing almost exactly that of her mistress. The overall effect is one of luxuriant lassitude.

Ernst brings his subject to life with an extraordinarily rich palette, heavily applied but tightly controlled, complex plays of light and shadow, and a unique technique of recreating in wet paint the very textures that he wishes to describe. This is particularly notable in the representation of the carpet and bedspread, where the weave is described not by the painting of lines, but by the fine combing of the paint surface; the joins between the tiles are similarly treated. Ernst has purposefully juxtaposed as many objects with different textures as possible: wool, silks and cottons; earthenware and glazed tiles, wood and mother of pearl, all compressed into a tightly packed picture plane that is angled subtly towards the viewer.

Ernst's image is extraordinarily evocative, constructed like a sumptuous theatre set out of a huge array of props, which combine to create for the 19th century viewer a tantalising glimpse of a forbidden Orient.
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