Ludwig Deutsch was among the most important and commercially successful Orientalist artists of his day, feeding an insatiable international appetite for Orientalist art. Deutsch, like Jean-Léon Gérôme (see lots 26 and 27), was particularly prized for his extraordinary attention to detail, illustrating on canvas the cultural minutiae of an exotic society, and bringing the Middle-East to life for the wealthy boulevardiers of Paris.
Like other Orientalist artists, Deutsch kept in his studio numerous artefacts from the Middle-East -- furniture, tiles, textiles, metalwork and costumes -- which he weaved into his compositions, all part of a creative template that included photographs, sketches, and live models. Details such as the light reflected on the intricate carving of the vase held by the figure on the left (fig. 1); the shaft of light in the background or the exquisitely rendered leathery features of the green-turbanned figure in the foreground are all executed with enormous technical skill. Deutsch, however, never let his obsession with detail lead him to create a pedantic assembly of individual motifs, as he had a profoundly developed sense of composition. In the present work, Deutsch renders great nuances of expression, and the relationship of each figure to the other is carefully worked out. The mood is informal; the artist has contrasted a fleeting moment with the implied permanence of the background architecture.
The present painting shows a group of men gathered outside a traditional Egyptian souk or marketplace. It was painted two years after his first trip to Egypt, during his most productive period, and was most likely significantly based on sketches that he made there. With some exceptions, the majority of Deutsch's paintings after 1883 were based on scenes of Cairo everyday life (fig. 1, 3 & 4). These contrast strongly with his more formal paintings, which typically showed a single -- often ceremonial -- figure, set starkly against a lavish background, or in a luxurious interior. A smaller variant of the present work was sold in these rooms in 2002 (see fig. 2).