Edwin Lord Weeks was the most famed American Orientalist artist of the 19th century, and without doubt the most well-travelled painter in this genre. A true painter-explorer, Weeks was primarily a documentary artist, striving for a realist rendition of his subject matter, which sought to highlight the beauty of local customs, colour, architecture and climate without resorting to the more dramatized and constructed narratives of other painters in the genre.
As a young man, Weeks' predeliction for travel was arguably stronger than for painting, and he embarked on his first trip abroad from his native Boston in 1872, travelling throughout North Africa and the Near East before he had received any serious artistic training. Not until 1874 did Weeks make a concerted effort to hone his painting skills. Moving to Paris, he applied to work in the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme, but ended up working in the more accessible studio of Léon Bonnat. Although often referred to as a pupil of the former, both in artistic outlook and style both artists were very different, with Weeks very much a Realist who preferred painting sur le motif to the confines of the studio.
Weeks spent much of the rest of the 1870s travelling and painting in Morocco, and exhibited for the first time at the Salon in Paris in 1878. His paintings quickly met with commercial success. In 1882-1883 the artist made the first of two extended trip to India (the second was in 1892), a journey which he recorded meticulously in photographs, sketches and his own diary. It is from such sources that the present work would have been constructed on his return to Europe. He described the fort at Gwalior in his journal as follows:
"Shattered, ruinous and rapidly falling into decay (it) still remains a striking landmark, and a unique monument in India...(It) bears the stamp of complete originality, as if its builders had been allowed to work out their own conception unhindered. I refer more specifically to the older portion, called the palace of Man Mandir. Its long line of round sloping towers, capped with broad-rimmed cupolas, overtops the rocky ridge which rises straight from the plain, and the whole facade, within and without, is decorated with bands and panels of brilliant enamelled bricks, blue and green and vivid yellow, varied with courses of sculptured stone-work...One amusing feature is a band or ribbon of rich blue faience extending entirely around the facade, on which is a line of yellow ducks." (E.L. Weeks, From the Black Sea through Persia and India, New York, London, 1895, pp. 246-247).
The features described above are faithfully reproduced in the painting, although the figures are no doubt assembled from various sketches, which often provided a library of stock types from which the artist drew to animate his compositions (for example the two figures leading the procession can be found in a number of other works by the artist). The sunlit architecture, described in an almost blinding light, is portrayed as part of an ancient, yet living culture, exotic but unglamourised, resulting in a composition which has all the forthright characterstics for which the artist is most prized.
A smaller version of this composition, with a reduced number of figures, seen walking away rather than towards the viewer, was painted by the artist in-situ in 1883, and sold at Christie's in London in 2000 (fig. 1).
This painting will be included in the Weeks catalogue raisonné being prepared by Dr. Ellen K. Morris.