In 1683 Franois Pidou, Chevalier de Saint-Olon (1646-1720), Ambassador of King Louis XIV, was sent to the court of Sultan Moulay Ismal (reg. 1672-1727) in Mekns, the capital of Morocco. The dual purpose of the embassy was the conclusion of an alliance with Morocco against Turkey, which was disrupting French shipping in the Mediterranean, and the negotiation of freedom for French slaves. On his return to France, Saint-Olon recounted his experiences in a book, Relation de l'Empire de Maroc. ou l'on voit la situation du Pays, les moeurs, Cotumes, gouvernement, Rligion & Politique des Habitants (Paris, 1695), which was almost certainly used by the artist for this composition
The book describes the Moroccan court and the two audiences that took place between the Sultan and Saint-Olon, of which this composition depicts the second. The meeting took place on 19 June 1693, in the famous stables of Dar Kbira Palace, Mekns. The stables are described as being particularly beautiful, formed by two long arched galleries crossed by a paved street, with each horse kept in a separate arcade. It was the first time that any Frenchman was allowed to penetrate so far into the secluded palace. In the foreground is Pidou himself, recognisably wearing his hat before the Sultan - the prerogative of another monarch and thereby of an ambassador, who acts in locus regis. Moulay Ismal, as recounted in the Chevalier de Saint-Olon's book, sits on a richly harnessed horse and holds a lance; he wears a sumptuous costume. Pidou also noted in his book that it was known that, when the Sultan wore a yellow outfit, he was in a very bad mood. Indeed a few minutes before this second audience, Moulay Ismal had just stabbed two of his black slaves to death. This cruel anecdote is attested to by the bloodied sleeve of the Sultan's shirt, a fact also described by Pidou.
Although Moulay Ismal seemed at times to be capricious and severe (Pidou related that during his three-week stay at the Moroccan court the Sultan personally killed forty-seven of his subjects as an honour and guarantee to Paradise) he was in fact known as a wise ruler; he was also a great lover of architecture and a fine horseman, 'trs adroit tous les jeux et courses de lances et de cheval' (Saint-Olon, op. cit., p. 64). He established and maintained peace within Morocco until his death in 1727, managing to recover Tangiers from the British, recapturing Mehdia from Spain and preventing Turkish expansion in North Africa. The mission of the French ambassador was ultimately a failure, although Moulay Ismal agreed to free some of the youngest French slaves.
A composition of the same dimensions, signed by Pierre-Denis Martin, showing the first audience between Moulay Ismal and Saint-Olon was on the art market in 1994.
These audiences were also illustrated in two drawings by Sebastien Leclerc (18th Century), in the Muse de la Marine in Marseille (see the catalogue of the exhibition, L'Orient des Provenaux dans l'histoire, November 1982-February 1983, pp. 193-194).
Pierre-Denis Martin, also called Martin le Jeune or Martin des Gobelins, was born in Paris, either the nephew or a cousin of Jean-Baptiste Martin, Martin des Batailles. Specializing to a degree in battle scenes, but most of all in views of royal castles, Martin studied and worked for a few years at the Manufacture des Gobelins under Adam Frans van der Meulen, by whom he was strongly influenced. With Jean-Baptiste Martin he worked at the Chteau de Marly, where they developed a less militaristic treatment of van der Meulen's style. Later, Pierre-Denis Martin was appointed peintre en ordinaire to both King Louis XIV and Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. Examples of his work are at Versailles, in the Alte Pinacotek, Munich and in the Palace of Tsarkoie Selo, near St. Petersburg.