As a student of the renowned Orientalist Jean-Léon Gerôme, Frederick Arthur Bridgman absorbed his mentor's ability to filter the everyday of the East through his own Western lens, thereby creating an internal repertoire of exotic imagery upon which to draw. Having traveled extensively throughout Spain and North Africa, the American-born artist experienced the destinations he depicted, imbuing his works with a sense of authenticity often lacking in those of his peers.
Born November 10, 1847 in Tuskeegee, Alabama, but raised in Massachusetts, Bridgman was exposed to the diversity of American culture from an early age. His aptitude for draftsmanship was established in 1863 when, as an apprentice to the American Bank Note Company, he elected to take evening drawing classes at the Brooklyn Art Association. Two years later, his work was shown publicly for the first time at the Association's annual fall exhibition.
Eager to obtain the skills of a true French Academician, Bridgman ventured overseas with the intention to train at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in June of 1866. Though he first spent a year painting peasants with the American artist Robert Wylie in the Breton village of Pont Aven, he eventually began his studies in Paris in February of 1867. It was at this time that the artist commenced his training in the prestigious Gérôme atelier. The summer and fall of 1872 proved to be a period of significant stylistic influence. Relocating to the Pyrenees, Bridgman experienced clean air, intense sunlight, and the Moorish aesthetics of Spanish architecture. He was also exposed to the sensuous colors of the Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny, who inspired a lightening of his palette and kindled his interest in the exotic lands that lay across the Straight of Gibraltar.
Making his way down the Iberian Peninsula, Bridgman departed for North Africa on a trip that would prove to be the turning point in his career. From late autumn of 1872 to the spring of 1873, Bridgman traveled through Maghrib, visiting Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, venturing inland to the oasis towns that bordered the Sahara Desert. Such travels enhanced the artist's visual vocabulary and provided ample fodder for his paintings' subject matter.
The present foray into the daily life of the East initially invites but ultimately eschews narrative. Here, Bridgman employs romantic shadow play along with authentic costume and architecture in order to dramatize and exoticize a quotidian streetscape. Though the scene begs interpretation, its maidens remain mysterious beneath their beguiling robes. Loose brushwork and an emphasis on color suggest that Women of Algiers was painted during the later part of Bridgman's career. For it was at this time that he replaced his previously favored photo-realistic style with a looser technique more saturated with light and color. As one critic noted in 1899, 'Mr. Bridgman now paints with a freer, juicier brush than he used some years ago, he has got almost entirely away from Gérôme, he is now [sic] longer photographic, his color lacks unity and moderation, yet is often more ingeniously applied, and like so many of his fellows he is aiming for decorative effect' ('Gallery and Studio: Frederick A. Bridgman's Recent Pictures', Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 January 1899, p. 28 as cited in I. S. Fort, Frederick Arthur Bridgman and the American Fascination with the Exotic Near East, vol. I and II, Ph. D. diss., City University of New York, 1990, p. 429). Women of Algiers represents a confluence of the various influences Bridgman's travels afforded, and captures simultaneously the stylistic departure that marked the pinnacle of his career.
This work has been authenticated by Dr. Ilene Susan Fort.