Ranked in the top echelon of Orientalist painters of the second half of the 19th Century, Rudolf Ernst was a craftsman who used his exotic subject matter primarily as a vehicle through which he expressed his technical mastery of transferring surface texture and color to canvas. Like his compatriot, Ludwig Deutsch, Ernst developed a mastery of plasticity and form, which was best expressed through his depictions of artifacts. His concern was not complete ethnographic accuracy, for sometimes he would juxtapose objects from different cultures in the same composition, but more to dazzle his wealthy patrons with paintings that had almost a three-dimensional quality.
These qualities made Ernst’s works extremely sought-after in his day. He was a popular and frequent exhibitor at the Paris Salon and was rated particularly high by American clients who sought out his large scale works to decorate their vast houses. The sense of opulence celebrated in so many of Ernst’s paintings was well-suited to the surroundings in which they would eventually hang.
Ernst was intimately familiar with the cultures he depicted in his paintings. The artist visited Morocco, Turkey and the Moorish palaces of Spain. He used these trips to exotic lands to amass a vast array of different objects for his personal collection, which he would reassemble in his studio and use as backdrops and props for his paintings. He would also supplement the source material of his collection with information provided by an extensive personal collection of photographs and illustrated books.
The present work exhibits all the hallmarks for which Ernst is most well-known. Set in a lavish interior, the painting exudes a sense of comfort and informality, with a group of children seated around a table absorbed in their communal meal. The picture plane is crowded with objects creating an elaborate mosaic of exotic patterns which play across surfaces as diverse as marble, tiles, earthenware, wooden latticework and woven textiles. The intensity evident in children at mealtime is captured perfectly, while the indulgent adults look on. A servant is seated in the background, perhaps waiting to bring the next course. The interior is lavish and complex, with recessed space enhancing the sense of opulent luxury. Most extraordinary, and unique to Ernst among the Orientalist artists, is his technique of scraping directly into wet paint to enhance the textural quality of the picture surface. The rug has been combed through with fine lines to simulate the effect of a weave, while the lines around each of the tiles that form the intricate and decorative background have been scraped out to emphasize the mosaic-like construction of the patterned surface. The overall effect creates a work that is both soothing and entertaining, inviting the eye of the viewer to wander across a panoply of interlinked objects, colors and textures.