Painted at the apogee of Ludwig Deutsch's career, in one of the artist's several Paris studios, the present work is extraordinary not only for the artist's customary attention to detail, but also for its dramatic chiaroscuro and subtle brushwork. No other work in Deutsch's oeuvre shows such a powerful grasp of light and shade. Usually in the artist's paintings the transfer from light to shadow occurs further back in the picture plane, and is expressed as a relatively sudden transition, with a uniform light defining the foreground. Here Deutsch illuminates the scene dramatically from the right, defining his figures not only with the clarity of line for which the Orientalists are traditionally famed, but also moulding them with light and shade, and with subtle, varied brushwork (fig. 1). The overall effect is to soften the composition, and to focus it on the central figures.
The theme of fortune telling was a popular one in Orientalist art; Deutsch repeated the present composition in 1927, and the subject was
rendered also by other artists, including Deutsch's close friend Rudolf Ernst (see fig. 2 and lot 21). The practice, which stretched back to times prior to Islam, was still common on the streets of Cairo in the late 19th century, and Deutsch would have been familiar with it either from photographs or from one of his three recorded visits to the Egyptian capital. Similar in concept to the Western idea of fortune-telling from tea-leaves, the Middle-Eastern practice of using rice is based on the belief that patterns in the grain alluded to significant future events.
Deutsch's practice of interchanging and re-using models and backgrounds to create composite images was common practice among his peers, and is evident from the fact that the main sitter on the right of the present work is the same as the one he used in his 1904 masterpiece, The Scribe (fig. 3), and in some of the other most important works that he painted in 1906, including The Narguile Smoker and La prière du matin.(fig. 4)
Executed at a time when Deutsch was moving from a photorealist to a looser style, the present work combines the best elements of both: the extraordinary attention to detail of the former, but rendered softer and less austere by the latter to create overall a picture of great drama and intimacy.