To the left stands a group of four Arabs. The first two, in similar black and white burnouses, draw their heads close together, as if to confer. Slightly further back, a figure in a red burnous observes their confabulation. The final and most imposing figure heads the group. Except for his pale pink slippers and sash, his burnous is all white, as is the short beard upon his chin. Overlapping the thin azure strip that suggests the Mediterranean Sea, he connects with the illuminated peninsula of descending sky. His pose, his fixed stare, and his striking distinguished looks all mark him as the most imposing person in the painting. Beyond a small patch of ground, he faces the picture's dominant motif. It is a rearing chestnut horse, mounted by an Arab clad in pink, red, and white, seated as calmly and comfortably as if he were reclining in an armchair. If the cavalier is calmly in control, his horse is spirited, as evidenced by the white of its back-turned eyes and its eloquent open mouth. His long flowing tale sweeps the ground, providing visual support for the single hoof that briefly bears all the animal's weight. Beyond is another unsaddled horse, an alert bay with a thin blaze on its forehead, attended by a groom in a red suit. Scattered figures, mostly seated, watch from a distance. Surrounding and setting off the equestrian group is a wooded ridge, which descends in the distance to be edged by white rectangular buildings.
Despite the atmospheric looseness of handling, what is taking place becomes clear. The chestnut and the bay are being shown off, with an eye to purchase, to the distinguished Caid or Sultan and his entourage, perhaps even to his rivals. The picture is about the profound relationship, a kind of identity, between Arab men and their horses.
This is not a picture that represents a specific situation, in terms of place or time. One would have a difficult time identifying when or where it takes place. There are two larger versions of this subject, both about a meter by a meter and a half in size (fig. 1). Each includes several more figures, notable some Arab horsemen facing the rearing horse, who is placed on the left facing right in the larger pictures. Praising the Orientalist paintings of Delacroix, whom he knew and much admired, Fromentin wrote "what is most beautiful with him is what is most general" (E. Fromentin, "Une année dans le Sahel" in Eugène Fromentin, Oeuvres complètes, Paris, 1984, p. 326). As Baudelaire had pointed out in his review of the Salon of 1859 "[Fromentin] is neither precisely a landscape nor a genre painter; these two territories are too limited to contain his free and supple fancy. If I said of him that he is a teller of traveler's tales, I should not be saying enough, for there are many travelers with neither poetry or soul, and his soul is one of the rarest and most poetic that I know" (C. Baudelaire, "Salon de 1859" in Charles Baudelaire: Oeuvres complètes, Paris, vol II, p. 649). Nevertheless, the painting's loose, shimmering beauty does have a historical context as well as a message mixed from observation and fantasy.
In 1853 General Daumas, a central figure in French-Algerian colonialism, briefly adopted his former foe and prisoner Abd-el-Kader as a literary collaborator, much as Buffalo Bill later hired the great Chief Sitting Bull to play in his Wild West show. Daumas had decided that scattered sentiments from perhaps the most celebrated Arab leader since Saladin might be appropriate for a second edition of his book, The Horses of the Sahara. In his text Daumas had made the startling assertion that, at the height of his power, his fellow author had executed every (Muslim) believer convicted of selling a horse to a non-believer! Without confessing such behavior, Abd-el-Kader did opine that the horse was "after man...the most noble, the most patient, the most useful of created beings" (E. Daumas, The Horses of the Sahara and the Manners of the Desert, London, 1863, pp. 13 and 37-8). Fromentin, who owned several books by Daumas and often borrowed information about Algeria from him, wrote soon after "the gallop of a well-mounted horse is still a unique spectacle, as is every equestrian exercise performed to display, in their moments of common activity and accord, the two most intelligent and finished creatures in form which God has made" (E. Fromentin, op. cit., pp. 354-5). The close association of Arab man and Arab steed in their natures and appearance is a fundamental theme in Fromentin's pictures. Both have the same elegance, the same fire, the same lean muscularity. Baudelaire remarked that Fromentin had been struck by the patrician dandyism and gravity of Arab tribal chiefs and an important accompanying attribute of those qualities was a sleek horse, "caressed", like their masters, "with a silk brush" (A. Silvestre, Portraits et souvenirs, Paris, 1891, p. 123). In Fromentin's oil sketch of standing Arabs in the Ackland Museum (fig. 2), there is no horse; but the related poses and orientation of the subjects reveal that they are regarding an unseen animal outside the picture.
The sheen of Fromentin's horses, structured and polished like elegant furniture, was often echoed in the highlights gracing the fine folds of a hand-woven burnous. Fromentin once revealed a surprising source for the sparkling coats of his Arab horses: his close friend Gustave Moreau; "I owe Moreau more than he owes me", he once told the painter Jules Breton, "He taught me to put the shine on a horse's rump" (J. Breton, Nos peintres du siècle: l'art et les artistes, Paris, 1899, p. 178).
The idle, dandified stylishness of Arab men and their horses was achieved through the hard labor of Arab women, notably the onerous task of hauling water. Fromentin painted that subject several times, including a picture in the 1850-51 Salon whose caption included an emphatic quote from General Daumas: "the Saharan man does absolutely nothing" (B. Wright, Eugène Fromentin: A Life in Art and Letters, Bern, 2000, p. 219). Small wonder that these males might come to be identified closely with their horses. When Lamartine wrote a stirring poetic tribute to the Arabian horse, he addressed the spirited animal as "my proud Sultan". Many travel writers remarked the social equality in Arab society, but ownership of a fine horse was a simple means of improving one's status. As Fromentin wrote: "In the eyes of an Arab, a good horse establishes a man's superiority. Lacking any other sign, there is nothing which gains you such esteem; because their respect attaches itself only to that which is an agreed mark of rank, of fortune, and of command, and to come after others encourages the presumption that one follows a master" (E. Fromentin, op. cit, p. 69).
Having attained such great fluency in his depiction of the Arab man and his horse, Fromentin's resolution late in his life to recommence his studies with both an Arab horse and an Eastern male model shortly before he painted this picture come somewhat as a surprise. He hired an Indian named Euloge and bought a small Arab horse called Salem for close study of equine and human anatomy. His belated application is as commendable as it was surprising. Speaking of his visual knowledge of "my animal," he wrote to a friend, the landscape painter Charles Busson on 18 September 1874: "There is a world to study." (B. Wright, op cit, vol. II, p. 1182). Sketches like the handsome one from the Museum in Fromentin's native La Rochelle demonstrate an unexpected perceptual realism that is quite different from the fluid abstraction found in his sale pictures. Making clear his conscious transforming process of observed nature into exercises in virtuoso brushwork, which look as much backward to the 18th Century as forward to Impressionism. No doubt noting the skill of Fromentin's brush as well as the felicity of his words in creating a sense of atmosphere and place, France's nonpareil 19th Century literary critic, Sainte-Beuve, wrote of Fromentin's twin talents: "He has two muses. He is a painter in two languages, an amateur in neither, he is a conscientious artist, fine and severe in both" (C.-A. Sainte-Beuve, Nouveaux Lundis, Paris, 1867, vol. VII, p. 102). Focusing on Fromentin's visual language, Henri Focillon, one of France's greatest art historians, excellently invoked the special qualities of Fromentin's best pictures: "His painting is fine, lively, knowledgeable, fresh and singing in its tones: it has beauty when it conserves the looseness of the sketch and the melting energy of a structure of touches...The extreme elegance of vision and of craft refine these cruel knights' (H. Focillion, la peinture aux XIXème et XXème siècles: Du Réalisme à nos jours, Paris, 1927, vol. II, p. 83). Once considered fearsome and barbaric, these Algerian knights are, through Fromentin's brush, as noble as their horses, attired with elegance, illumined with nostalgia.
We are grateful to James Thompson for preparing this catalogue entry.
(fig. 1) Eugène Fromentin, Le marchand des chevaux, Private Collection.
(fig. 2) Eugène Fromentin, Cinque Arabes debout, 1874, Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackland Fund.