Ludwig Deutsch, arguably the most important Austrian Orientalist, was born in Vienna, and attended the city's renowned Academy of Fine Arts before settling in Paris. Largely influenced by Jean-Léon Gérôme's academic style, he began travelling to the Middle East, particularly to Egypt, by the 1880s. Although little is known about Deutsch's visits to Egypt, it appears that from 1883 until 1904 he travelled there as many as five times. Deutsch's home outside Paris was also decorated in the fashionable Orientalist style and housed a large collection of objects he brought back from his travels to the Middle East. Many of these props, such as daggers, arm shields, kursi and hookahs appear frequently in his pictures, adding colour and texture to the overall composition while demonstrating the riches of the Eastern lands (fig. 1).
At Prayer is a remarkable example of the artist's mature style and his striking use of colour. The subject of mosque interiors and men at prayer were of frequent interest to Orientalist painters mainly for practical and occasionally philosophical reasons. The fundamental practical reason was that some of the most extraordinary architectural edifices in the East were non-secular buildings such as the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, the Great Mosque in Cordoba, Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, the Caïd Bey Mosque in Cairo and the Green Mosque in Bursa. Such structures were scattered throughout the Middle East and were some of the most imposing works of art on display. The message conveyed by mosque architecture is one of power.
"In the Ottoman Empire, secular power and religious authority were personified in the Sultan himself, whose rule had been granted by God. The great imperial mosques therefore were an expression of the sultan's grandeur: indeed, mosques are known by the names of their benefactors more often than not and unlike Christian churches, they are never given names associated with God or with religious personages" (D. Kuban and A. Ertug, Sinan: an Architectural Genius, Bern, 1999, p. 20). This point also ties into the philosophical attraction to the subject matter. Both ritualistically and theoretically, prayer practice in Islam is different to Christianity. In Islam, Allah is devoid of any human characteristics and therefore is everywhere without any limitations of time or space. "Since the mosque is not a house of God, it is not consecrated in the sense that a pagan temple or Christian church is. In Islam, prayer is a common and simple duty incumbent upon a believer. It can be performed anywhere. Islam a priori rejects the notion that any artefact - any man made thing - can have any religious significance and this principle holds true for mosques...A mosque indicates a place of gathering but it is a communal gathering and not a transcendental one" (Kuban and Ertug, loc. cit., p. 20).
Most artists visiting the Middle East were drawn to these impressive structures but only those who fully embraced these foreign lands and their different cultures became interested in the underlying cultural and religious differences. More often than not Orientalist painters, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, depicted the act of prayer in mosque interiors with some Christian predisposition. As artists were often not allowed to paint in harems or mosques their imagery of people in such locations is often based on Edward Lane's book entitled An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Such a source of imagery made it easier for artists to paint what they had not researched, observed or understood. Deutsch in At Prayer challenges himself to step beyond physical descriptions of worlds foreign to him and exhibits a deeper understanding of the Middle East. The meditative mood of the individual depicted in At Prayer communicates a finer spiritual commitment rather than a mere rhythmic following of dogmatic rituals.
By the time the present work was executed in 1923, Ludwig Deutsch had been visiting the Middle East for decades. In At Prayer there are some compositional similarities with his earlier paintings of palace guards. The apparent and expressive focal points, such as the elaborate 19th Century north-western Persian carpet and the mother-of-pearl inlaid kursi are all archetypal elements of Deutsch's painting.