Ernst came from a family of distinguished artists. His father, Leopold Ernst, was a painter and architect who designed cathedrals. Rudolf entered the Wiener Akademie der Bildenen Künste in 1869. During his early career, whilst he was under the tuition of Feuerbach and Eisenmenger at the Viennese Academy, Ernst focused upon portrait and genre painting.
In 1874, he went on a study trip to Rome, and from there moved to Paris. He sent his first painting to the Paris Salon in 1877. He did not make his debut as an Orientalist painter until 1885 upon his return from his first visit to Spain and Morocco.Through these works he achieved great acclaim, with one such Orientalist scene earning him a bronze medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889. His wider introduction to the French public came through the glowing review by critic Leon Roger-Miles in 1898 who wrote that nothing that the artist touched ‘remained innocent of beauty, whether it was a painting, a piece of music or a ceramic.’ (C. Juer, Najd Collection of Orientalist Paintings, London, 1991, p. 74).
In the present painting, Le Marchand de coquillages, a man is depicted in a white tunic, covered with a lavish leopard fur, selling shells and jewellery close to a gate. As in many of his Orientalist paintings, Ernst has captured the intricate details of the different textures beautifully. Our eye is led from the merchant through the archway to the radiant reflections of the white walls of houses in the background.
The present work has been for over 100 years in a collection in Fontenay-aux-Roses, where Ernst died in 1932.