After his early training at the Vienna Academy, Ernst travelled extensively through Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tunis before basing himself in Paris where he assumed French nationality, like his great friend Ludwig Deutsch. He continued travelling in the 1890s to countries such as Constantinople and Egypt. This interest in the Middle East was reflected in his own home, which was filled with those objects seen in his paintings.
Orientalism became popular in Germany and Austria almost a century after it gripped England and France, who were granted trade rights and free passage though the Ottoman Empire during the early 18th century. The empire was only opened to other countries in the late 1800s but travellers quickly flocked to see these exotic lands and even Ernst's native Vienna, a city attacked four times by the Ottoman army, was caught up in the fashion for all things Oriental.
Ernst was awarded a bronze medal for an Orientalist scene he entered into the Paris Exposition Universale in 1889, three years after completing the present work.
Ernst's interest and knowledge of Middle Eastern cultures, architecture, costume and decoration is reflected in his rich compositions, such as the present work, which features the iconic blue tiles and mosaic decoration that characterised Eastern design. Ernst had become particularly interested in the tradition of tile-making on his many travels. The tight composition is filled with decorative details such as the costumes of the sage and his attendants, the delicate architecture and carving, the mosaic backdrop and the rug which leads the viewer's eye to the wise man's feet. Placed in the shadows, Ernst's figures are framed by the intricate arch and pillars of a palace or mosque. The influence of Gérôme's academic style and rich palette can be discerned, but Ernst had a more relaxed approach to composition and was more likely to create an idealised scene by combining various elements from different regions, such as designs from Spain, Turkey and Tunisia.