In the late 19th Century, Frederick Arthur Bridgman was considered one of the most prominent American expatriate artists. Trained in Paris under the tutelage of the greatest of all the Orientalist painters, Jean-Leon Gérôme, Bridgman represented the embodiment of the strong American fascination with the East.
It is important to separate the art of Bridgman, with its distinct approach to the image of the Orient, from that of Gérôme. Ilene Susan Fort writes, 'Bridgman is more than a follower of Gérôme with little creative imagination of his own. While always returning to the elements of his master's art, Bridgman also cast the East in the light of his own heritage, rejecting or modifying certain themes... Bridgman began turning away from Gérôme's meticulous painting style, studio lighting and ethnological orientations in search of a more naturalistic view of the East' (I. Fort, Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Ph. D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1990, p. 4).
Bridgman's first contact with the Orient came between 1872-1873 during two extended trips to North Africa. At the time, Americans traveled to this region much less than their European counterparts, but the young artist made his way to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and then to Egypt and a trip up the Nile. Bridgman was captivated by the Near East, particularly Algiers, and would return often, driven by the desire to capture the life and light of this exotic place.
Genre paintings of ordinary life in North Africa would come to dominate Bridgman's oeuvre, and during his second visit to North Africa, Bridgman spent more time outside of the cities. His experience of the landscape and light of the desert was to change his art and the effects of this are clearly demonstrated in Off for a Ride, Constantine, Algeria. The artist's enhanced fascination with natural light and its effect on color and texture would dominate the later years of his oeuvre. Along with this renewed interest in the effect of the light of the East came a broader and more fluid brushstroke. As air and atmosphere became more important, detailed precision became less so. One of Bridgman's reviewers wrote in 1881:
'Here were vivid impressions of actual things, and vivid ways of recording those impressions. Here was feeling for color, and for tone, and for atmosphere, and for light and dark. Here were breadth of touch, rapidity of handling, and strong effects. Here were vigor and earnestness that was not deliberation... studies undertaken... with an artist's wish to fix forever the fleeting aspect that had charmed him' (van Renssalaer, American Art Review 2, June 1881, 50-51, pp. 180, 183 of American Art and American Collections, reprint).
Earl Shinn wrote in the same year, 'The painter's hardest task is to get the color, the vivacity, the directness of the first sketch into the more ambitious and deliberate finished pictures... and Bridgman has satisfied this demand with an unusually slight loss of power' (E. Shinn, Art Amateur 4, no. 4, March 1881, p. 71.) What Bridgman has reached for, and attained, in Off for a Ride, Constantine, Algeria is the warmth, light and mood of an afternoon in this exotic land.
In Off for a Ride, Constantine, Algeria, the artist’s impressions of figures in a courtyard form a scene of everyday life illuminated by a clear white light that enhances the pale colors of the rider’s beautiful yellow cloak and the woman’s pink costume. Even the stones that pave the courtyard are painted in pale pastel pinks, yellows and blues. Bridgman has transformed what should be a space enveloped in shadow into an oasis of light and color, and his ability to capture the essence of air and the play of light on fabric is clearly demonstrated.