Bauernfeind was born in the town of Sulz-am-Neckar in Baden-Württemberg, southern Germany. His education gave no indication that he would become one of the most accomplished artists of his era. He had graduated from the Stuttgart Polytechnic Institute and joined an architectural firm. After an initial start at the office of Professor Wilhelm Baumer, he was employed by Adolf Gnauth (1840-1884) who was not only an architect and a Professor at the Nuremberg School of Design, but also a moderately gifted painter. It was during his time in the employment of Gnauth that Bauernfeind transformed from architect to artist.
When travelling to Italy for a project for Gnauth’s firm in 1873 and 1874, Bauernfeind refined his artistic skills, executing with meticulous verisimilitude the architecture and nature of his surroundings. Although his attention to detail was remarkable, his work found few interested buyers due to the rather mundane subject matter. He was advised to find a subject matter more ‘en vogue’ and, very much aware of the financial opportunities awaiting a painter of Orientalist subjects, he looked to the East as his new source of inspiration. This marked a turning point in his career: a fundamentally different and exotic culture in which to study the sun, the light, the characters, customs and religious attitudes.
Bauernfeind made three trips to the Orient during his lifetime before eventually settling there permanently. For his first trip in 1880 he made enquiries through his sister and brother-in-law who were living in Beirut at the time. Before his voyage, they sent him a letter describing the area:
Everything which is in our power to do to make the Orient pleasant and interesting shall be done. Of course, I must tell you beforehand, you will find Syria to be no Italy. No such abundance of architectural art treasures are to be expected here; all the same, I should think that in spite of this, an artist could find a worthwhile field for his studies here, and would not regret his journey. Beirut perhaps has the least to offer - in very great contrast to the highlands, which do not lack for ruined stately homes and castles. Damascus, too, is at all events interesting; I haven’t been there yet, but from what I’ve heard tell it is a city whose Oriental character is still the least diluted by European civilization’ (quoted in A. Carmel and H. Schmid,op. cit., p.91).
Since his first trip to Palestine in 1880, Bauernfeind was captivated by the Holy City, its monuments, people and traditions. A consummate observer, the artist was deeply interested in realist detail rather than in the grand narratives that were the hallmark of his Orientalist contemporaries such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Benjamin Constant.
The present work is related to a series of large-scale oils of the same subject that would be the artistic centrepiece of the artist’s late career (fig. 1).
The Western Wall (fig. 2), also known as The Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, is the only remaining stretch of the western side of the stone platform on which the Temple of Solomon stood. Throughout the centuries, the chants and prayers of pilgrims at the Wall have evoked the capture of the city by the Romans and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.. The Wall itself dates from the Second Century B.C., though its upper sections were added at a later date.