The first Ottoman envoy to France was sent to the court of Louis XIV in 1669. This short-lived mission was a disaster in terms of court protocol, but nevertheless the envoy's theatrical presentation added to the introduction of Turkish coffee made this a memorable event in the minds of the French. After this unfruitful political exchange, an Ottoman ambassador to France would not be appointed until 1721, but Ottomania - a fascination with all things Ottoman - would become a vogue in France resulting in plays such as Jean-Baptiste Racine's Bajazet.
Racine's formidable tragedy, Bajazet, first premiered in Paris on 1 January 1672, only three years after the Ottoman envoy's visit. The play, set in 1638, takes place in Constantinople during the reign of Sultan Amurat (Murat IV) and his brother Prince Bajazet (Bayezid). In the play, Prince Bajazet's thirst for ultimate power drives him to plot against his brother, Sultan Amurat, with Roxane, Amurat's favorite wife. The complicated and tragic storyline dissolves in Bajazet's murder and Roxane's execution.
In historical fact, the murders of Prince Bayezid as well as his two other brothers, Prince Suleyman and Prince Kasim, were indeed arranged by Sultan Murat IV. Yet these were committed entirely out of a paranoid desire to sustain autocracy, as opposed to a conflict borne out of a meditated challenge to power by the princes. Furthermore, historically speaking, the two female leads of Roxane and Atalide in Racine's play are entirely invented.
The 1830's, with the rise of the Romantic movement championed by Eugène Delacroix and his Orientalist body of work dominating the Paris Salon, France experienced a revival of interest in Ottomania. In this environment, more than a century later, on 23 November 1838 Racine's Bajazet was once again put on stage at the Comédie-Française in Paris to great acclaim. With Rachel Félix in the role of Roxane, the play met rave reviews.
Rachel Felix first appeared in the theater scene at the age of 17 and at the time of the production of Bajazet, she was only 18 years old. Her rise to fame and stardom was meteiric and by the time of her death in 1858 she was heralded as the greatest actress of her time.
During her career Rachel was painted on numerous occasions by famous artists ranging from Ingres and Chassériau to Gérôme. Though most artists chose to depict her as a specific character in a play, later on in life her face became a symbol for tragedy itself. Another portrait of her by William Etty (fig. 1), executed two years after the production of Bajazet, bears striking resemblance to the present painting. In both works Rachel's youthful expression predominates the painting, which is later replaced by her signature expressive theatricality.
Two well-known depictions of Rachel as Roxane were executed by Achille-Jacques-Jean-Marie Devéria, Eugène's older brother. The first is a an engraving entitled Rachel, costume de Roxane dans Bajazet (fig. 2), which illustrates one of her exquisite costumes for the play, and another is a painting entitled Rachel dans le rôle de Roxanne (fig. 3), which depicts the actress in lavish Ottoman headdress.
In the present painting, as well as in Achille Devéria's engraving (fig. 2), Roxane's grand Ottoman headdress is mainly inspired by visual accounts of royal Ottoman attire from the previous century. Two such famous 18th Century depictions of a Sultana in her full regal attire are that of Jean-Étienne Liotard's Le Rituel du café (fig. 4) and that of Joseph-Marie Vien's The Queen Sultana (fig. 5). In addition such large scale turbans decorated with pearls, emeralds and rubies make frequent appearances in Jean-Baptiste van Mour's early 18th Century paintings as well. There exist a large number of similar 18th Century images all or any of which would have provided ample visual inspiration for Roxane's turban and costume. During the early 19th Century, the grand dames of the Ottoman Empire no longer bejeweled their large scale turbans, but instead favored the glistening effects of heavily embroidered fabrics. Based on the style and the decoration of the turban one can construe that the present painting depicts a sublime Ottoman costume of the 18th Century intended to be worn specifically for a theatrical production in the 19th Century, and most possibly a splendid one such as the 1838 production of Bajazet.
The present lot was fully attributed to Eugène Devéria by Galerie Brame and Lorenceau as well as by Lynne Thornton in her book entitled Du Maroc aux Indes, Voyages en Orient.
(fig. 1) William Etty, Study of Mlle Rachel, York Museums Trust, (York Art Gallery) The Bridgeman Art Library.
(fig. 2) Achille Devéria, Rachel, Costume de Roxane dans Bajazet, Musée Carnavalet, Paris.
(fig. 3) Achille Devéria, Rachel dans le rôle de Roxanne, Collection de la Comédie-Française, Paris.
fig. 4) Jean-Étienne Liotard, Le Rituel du café, Private Collection.
(fig. 5) Joseph-Marie Vien, The Queen Sultana, Musée du Petit-Palais, Paris.