This magnificent painting represents the epitome of Edwin Lord Weeks' Moroccan oeuvre. Weeks had come to Morocco by the early 1870s and lived there intermittently until 1880, the year this painting was executed. In 1880, Weeks returned to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life, except for his various expeditions to India and Persia. Weeks executed his best Moroccan paintings between 1878 and 1882, and 1880 was a pivotal year for his career. With the exception of an untraced painting entered in the Paris Salon of 1878, 1880 represented Weeks' full-fledged debut on the Paris painting scene, with the Salon display of the present painting and another entitled La porte de l'ancien "Fondak" dans la sainte ville de Salé (Maroc). Together the two paintings established Weeks' reputation as a major orientalist painter, well before his later, well-celebrated Indian work.
The immediacy of Un embarquement de chameaux sur la plage de Salé, Maroc belies its execution as a Paris studio work. Part of Weeks' great genius was his ability to appear to render a scene en plein air, when it was in fact built up in the studio, at a later date, from sketches, vignettes and studies made during his travels. The present painting is an exceptional case in point, as a wholly convincing rendition of an exterior scene set in the bright sun of Morocco. The subject of the painting, the transfer of camels onto barges prior to crossing the estuary separating Salé from the city of Rabat, was a particular favorite of Weeks in his Moroccan period. No fewer than five compositions of this subject are known, of which the present work is by far the largest and most dramatic.
Of these other Weeks' compositions, one may compare two of particular distinction and similar character, also painted in and around 1880, and reproduced in Gerald M. Ackerman's American Orientalists (Paris: ACR Edition, 1994, pp. 243, 252). The one that appears on page 252 (fig.1) shows us precisely the same sandy embankment and estuary with the same rainbow of colors reflected in the water and the identical cluster of pastel buildings of Salé in the distance that we barely distinguish along the horizon of the Salon painting. In this smaller painting (22 x 36 in.) there appear the same barges, camels and colorful figures, positioned differently but clearly culled from the same array of elements available to Weeks in situ at that relatively featureless setting.
Compared to this other painting, however, Un embarquement sur la plage de Salé is far stronger and more masterly in its composition. Organizing the disparate elements of water, desert and sky are long diagonals of river bank and horizon, both of which lead the eye deep into the picture plane. A processional line of camels and figures plays against the long diagonals, a favourite compositional device of Weeks, and concentrates the focus on the center of the scene, where an attendant is wrestling a camel into a barge. The chromatic characteristics of the painting are arresting; the oranges and russets of the sandy bank are exquisitely captured in the reflections on the water. Arching over all is the hot, dry haze and the cobalt blue sky, also repeated in the reflections of the water. Clearly evident in the painting is Weeks' taut draftsmanship and his genius for depicting textures and surfaces of objects. Everywhere the eye is captured by detail, naturalistically rendered; whether the footprints in the sand, the weathered and sun-faded wooden boats, the sweat-glistened skin of the attendants, the wiry coats of the camels, or the woven saddle packs.
A rather different variation on the elements in the Salon painting appears in the painting illustrated in Ackerman on page 243 (fig. 2), dated 1880. Like the Salon painting it is divided horizontally into water, sandy shore and vast sky overhead. In addition, there is a portion of earthen berm broaching the sandy horizon crowned by a few architectural elements. The wooden barges, again identical to those in the other paintings, are here lined up in rhythmic order perpendicular to the narrow bank of sand. A complex mix of figures and animals crowds the foreground barge, and a similar mix populates the wider bank of the estuary. This relatively small painting (14 x 24 in) is rich and monumental beyond its size. Weeks utilizes a diagonal geometry to slice through the composition in order to create a scenographic whole he more fully realizes in the far larger Salon painting.
Built upon the achievement of these and other similar paintings, Un embarquement itself, however, could have left no doubt in the audience at the 1880 Salon that this was the work of an artist capable of constructing visual drama out of the ordinary course of everyday life, of rendering a seemingly-featureless landscape with great painterly excitement, and generating majesty out of the mundane, under the blazing light of the North African sun.
We are grateful to Dr. Ellen K. Morris for preparing this catalogue entry. Dr. Morris will include the present work in her forthcoming Weeks catalogue raisonné.
(fig. 1) Edwin Lord Weeks, Along the Nile, circa 1880, Private Collection.
(fig. 2) Edwin Lord Weeks, At the River Crossing, 1880, Private Collection.