A descendant of the ancient Nubian kingdom that had once ruled much of Northern Africa, the Mamluk guard in the present painting stands magisterially at the entrance to the Royal sanctuary. His firm gaze and confident stance present a formidable barrier to the secret world behind the doors to which few Westerners were allowed access. Revered even in the late 19th century for their heritage as noble warriors, the Nubians had for centuries been used as slave soldiers by the conquering Egyptians.
The Palace Guard has not been seen in public since 1937 and it is a tour de force that was painted at the apex of Deutsch's career. His first sojourn to Cairo in 1886 had profoundly affected him and from then onwards he dedicated his production to transcribing the scenes he had witnessed, limiting his work solely to Near Eastern subjects and eventually earning the accolade of being a premier Orientalist painter. To further the sense of naturalism in his compositions, Deutsch became a collector of Near Eastern artifacts that he incorporated into his paintings. The present painting relies on many of these props and is, in reality, more of a fantasy than an description of an individual. The guard wears a 19th century Indo-Persian helmet, arm guard and shield and carries an Indian powder horn, however, the chain mail is not an authentic to this armour. Moreover, he carries a Turkish gun and Yataghan sword and his dagger is Arabian.
A good deal of Deutsch's work portrayed scenes from the street life of Cairo as evident in The Chess Players (see lot 28). While many of these compositions did have a central focal figure, The Palace Guard goes further to produce a psychologically penetrating image by reducing the composition to its basest elements. Painted with breathtaking realism, the almost life-size scale and the high finish of the brushwork enhance the picture's photographic quality. As the light plays across the silks of his cape, the gold and brass of his armor and the chain mail of his gloves, it also catches the white of his eyes and illuminates the blues and pinks beneath his richly dark skin. The strength of the figure is palpable, enhanced by his commanding posture and penetrating gaze. The true mastery of the painting, however, is Deutsch's ability to humanize the figure by capturing the slightly quizzical element to his expression and to convey the nobility, strength and grace that were the essence of a palace guard.