Rudolf Ernst is today one of the most celebrated and sought-after Orientalist artists of the 19th Century. Born in Vienna in 1854, the son of the architectural painter Leopold Ernst, the young Rudolf received his early artistic training at the Vienna Academy. He travelled extensively through Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tunis before settling in Paris and taking French citizenship. He continued to travel throughout the 1890s visiting Turkey and Egypt. While on his travels, the artist bought artefacts and textiles, which he brought back to France and used to enhance the authenticity of his paintings.
Heavily influenced by the academic style of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Ernst concentrated on exactitude in detail and intensity of color. However,unlike Gérôme, he aimed more for dramatic effect based on an almost photographic rendition of individual motifs rather than any attempt at ethnographic accuracy, frequently juxtaposing artefacts from completely different religions and parts of the world, ranging from North Africa, the Middle East to India. Indeed, the scene is completely imagined, since both the figures and the landscape are clearly drawn from regions uninhabited by tigers.
This painting is a tour-de-force of Ernst's Orientalist oeuvre, where the artist strives for academic precision in the rendition of his figures; they have an unusually strong sense of plasticity, creating an almost three-dimensional sense of relief between them and the background. The artist's signature verisimilitude is further enlived by vibrant colours, with the costumes of the hunters, executed in jewel-tones of green, blue, red, and gold, set off magnificently by the earth tones of the background. The punctuation of these bold and exquisitely rendered costumes enhances the tension of the figures, each of whom holds the chains which bind their captured tiger.
This was clearly one of the artist's favorite compositions, as several other versions are known, albeit with slight variations (fig. 1).