Within the Orientalist movement the Austrian school of Orientalist painters holds a formidable position when compared with its British and French counterparts. The latter experienced the spread of this vogue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries mainly as a result of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. Whereas with the former, Orientalism initially became popular during the Biedermeier period through the special feature of cosmoramas, a new type of landscape painting that placed an emphasis on the observing subject. Especially during the second half of the 19th Century the Academy in Vienna produced a number of now legendary painters such as Adolf Schreyer, who was the court painter to the Prince Thurn Taxis, Leopold Carl Müller, Charles Wilda, Franz Xaver Kosler, Rudolf Ernst, Hans Makart and of course, Ludwig Deutsch.
Ludwig Deutsch, spent most of his working career in Paris where he achieved great success in the 1890s with his highly detailed scenes of daily life in Egypt, winning a gold medal at the Salon of 1900. His travels to Egypt in 1886, 1890 and 1898 allowed him to gather subjects and motifs for his future compositions. In his studio in Paris and the South of France he kept a vast amount of objects collected during his travels, such as tiles, furniture, arms, pipes, fabrics, and costumes. Like many of his contemporaries, the artist made use of photography to ensure archeological accuracy in his painted renderings of local architecture, tile and ablaq stone work, and the traditional mashrabiyah woodwork.
The thematic choices of the full-fledged Austrian Orientalists are more realistic than most of their French escapist and voyeuristic counterparts. Often real settings, costumes and peoples were of greater interest to Austrian artists than local legends and far-fetched tales. In this regard Ludwig Deutsch stands out singularly for his hyper-realistic execution and for a certain avoidance of excessive anecdote. His compositions, whether they depict every day scenes of chess players, men at prayer or bearing flags, have a sense of stillness and poise infusing the piece with a sense of striking monumentality. Above all, his images of palace guards are revered among his most imposing compositions. These arresting male figures are embodiments of traditional land-battle heroism.
Nubian figures in particular captured the imagination of the artist, for they appear often in his oeuvre and are some of his most desired and popular images. In antiquity, Nubia was a land of great natural wealth, of gold mines, ebony, ivory and incense. Some of Africa's greatest civilizations had their origins here, centers of wealth based on industry and trade. Deutsch's triumph with the Nubian subject matter is reminiscent of Gérôme's accomplishment with Bashi-Bazouks. Despite the high gloss finish, the microscopic detail and the exemplary attention to photographic exactitude, and without burdening their art with academic virtuoso, both artists achieve total expression of their subject's individual characters.
In the present painting, The Palace Guard, Ludwig Deutsch is at the height of his powers. The figure of the guard exudes pride and grandeur and his pose is unyielding and commanding. This same figure appears in another work that bears the same title from 1900, which is currently in the Najd Collection (fig. 1). A number of Deutsch's favorite props, such as the Indo-Persian helmet and shield as well as the exquisitely embroidered green silk fabric, appear in both compositions. A study for the present painting (fig. 2) illustrates the astonishingly exact and detailed planning involved. Deutsch produced many sketches and color studies before moving forward with a composition, and it is apparent that with each stage of planning and execution he aimed for perfection.
Deutsch's use of architecture is similar to a stage set, as it is utilized to help reinforce the human figure. In his compositions of the palace guard, Deutsch frequently used columns, gateways, exquisitely worked masonry and marbles to accentuate the might and glory of his sitters. In The Palace Guard of 1892 (fig. 3) such grandeur is substantiated with the elaborately marble inlaid walls, and the delicately carved mashrabiyah wood paneling. In the present work, an even more complex and impressive arrangement of tall ionic marble columns are depicted supporting Fatimid arches, and furthermore, 15th century wood carved Mamluk doors (fig 4.) are flanked on either side with glazed Damascus tiles. Here, Deutsch displays the entire breadth of his artistic virtuoso and without reservation puts on show his academic excellence and mastery.
(fig. 1) Ludwig Deutsch, A Palace Guard, 1892, sold at Christie's, New York, 1 November 1999, lot 37.
(fig. 2) Ludwig Deutsch, A Study for The Palace Guard.
(fig. 3) Ludwig Deutsch, The Palace Guard, 1900, Najd Collection.