Charles Robertson painted The Carpet Seller in 1881, a veritable turning point in the artist's career. A year earlier, in 1880, Robertson had begun to move toward the use of watercolor as his primary modus operandi and by 1884, he was executing the majority of his works in watercolor. Just five years after taking up the practice, Robertson would be invited to exhibit at the Royal Watercolor Society along with his already regular contributions to the Royal Academy. He also became a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour as well as the Royal Society of Painters, Etchers and Engravers. Though in the last decade of his life, Robertson was creating some of his most brilliant work.
The present work might well be seen as a bridge between Robertson's traditional oil paintings and the watercolors of the last part of his career (fig. 1), which are typically lauded for their extreme precision and shimmering luminosity. Robertson's depiction of this carpet seller, a merchant typically found to wander the streets of the locales that Robertson frequented, would solidify his reputation as one of the best Orientalist artists of the period. Robertson lavishes attention upon the carpet seller's magnificently-colored and intricately-patterned rug, rendering the minute detail of the rug's pattern with careful precision. The carpet's bold color combination of red, black, green and cream is the very highlight of the composition, framed by the sun-dappled, amber-colored architectural details that typify Robertson's work. Robertson could have been inspired by Jean-Léon Gérôme's magnificent Le Marchand de tapis au Caire of 1869 since compositionally the two works are very similar (fig. 2).
Though an Englishman by birth, Robertson traveled extensively, ultimately living abroad in Aix-en-Provence for several years. His first trip to North Africa was a formative one. In 1862, at the age of eighteen, Robertson traveled for the first time to Algeria, which would inform his first Orientalist work, entitled Boufarik, Algeria, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year. Later travels would include Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Tangiers, Jerusalem and Damascus.
(fig. 1) Charles Robertson, The Bazaar Khan El-Khaleelee, Cairo, Photo Courtesy: Mathaf Gallery, London.
(fig. 2) Jean-Léon Gérôme, Le Marchand de tapis au Caire, Brooklyn Art Museum, Brooklyn.