Like his great friend Ludwig Deutsch, Rudolf Ernst took French nationality and settled in Paris in 1876. In the second half of the 1880s Ernst travelled to Spain, Morocco and Tunis. This fascination with the Orient was expanded with trips to Constantinople and Egypt in the 1890s, and even engulfed Ernst's domestic life in France; by 1900 he had moved to Fontenay-aux-Roses, where he decorated his home in an Ottoman style and lived among the oriental objects which figured so prominently in his paintings.
In the 19th Century, fortune tellers, both men and women, were a common sight on the streets of major capitals like Cairo. They were usually called upon to predict events concerning marriages and money. Here, the fortune teller uses rice as his method of divination; reading patterns that were supposedly symbolic of future events from palm prints made in the grain. This idea of the vestige of mystery and superstition that could be found in the Middle East (so greatly contrasting with the rapid industrialisation of the West) obviously struck a chord with Ernst, who repeatedly depicted this subject. The painting also highlights Ernst's interest in the textures and architectural motifs of of the Orient. Ernst pays particular attention to the carved stonework of the wall and doorframe, and includes the iconic blue tiles and mosaic panelling that are so integral to Eastern design.
The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by Lynne Thornton.