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Henri Rousseau spent his childhood in Cairo, where his father was an illustrious member of the Ottoman public works administration, before moving to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts and in the studio of the great academic and Orientalist master Jean-Léon Gérôme. From 1901 onwards, he returned often to North Africa and embarked on a series of intensive trips from 1920 to 1932. These long sojourns in the Rif and Atlas mountains allowed him to create works with great attention to detail and atmosphere based on direct observation. In fact, Rousseau was very wary of the traditional tendency in Orientalist Art of relying too much on the imagination and the picturesque. He sought to render a more realist portrayal of the inhabitants, especially the horsemen, of the high Moroccan plateaus. Throughout his stays in the region, he would befriend many local tribal chiefs, or Caids, whose authorization he needed to explore various areas. He often represented these fascinating hosts in majestic compositions such as Arab horsemen in the desert or Horseman leaving a palace (see Lot 9). On his return from a trip that took him from the mountains to Fez and to Marrakech, in 1927, he exhibited 87 Moroccan works at the prestigious Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. The show was a tremendous critical and commercial success and four years later his distinguished career as a painter was fêted with an exhibit of his work at the 1931 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Along with horsemen, falconry was one of Rousseau’s main iconographic themes. He sought to express the intemporality and majesty of traditional Arab life and the chivalresque expression of Muslim culture. The Moroccan falcon, know as 'El Hor' (the noble one) as it appear in Rousseau’s work, is found especially in the coastal regions of Safi and Essaouira and is also encountered in the Amizmiz Mountains near Marrakech. Falconry, an eminently aristocratic, royal, and sacred sport, originates in ancient Mesopotamia and has been practiced in Morocco since the early Middle Ages. It is perpetuated to this day by the Lekouassem falconers who every August showcase their art at the great traditional festivities, the moussem, of Moulay Abdallah.
There was a time, it is said, when Arab lords considered that the presence of falcon droppings on their robes was a paramount sign of nobility.