Arthur von Ferraris was born in Hungary and began his artistic career in Vienna as a student of the portraitist Joseph Matthaus Aigner and for a time the young artist made his living painting portraits. In the early 1880s, Ferraris, like many of his compatriots, moved to Paris where he studied under Jean Léon Gérôme and Jules Lefebvre at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Gérôme's influence is evident in the younger artist's interest in Muslim subjects set in Egypt, Turkey and North Africa. In the winter of 1885, Ferraris traveled to Egypt with Ludwig Deutsch, and images of the streets and denizens of that country, and particularly Cairo, became the artist's most celebrated and sought-after compositions. Ferraris learned much from his traveling companion, and his works compare favorably to the work of the great Austrian master in both technique and the artist's ability to portray faithfully aspects of everyday life in the Middle East.
Caroline Juler believes the two artists may have been working in collaboration given the similarities of some of their pictures. (Najd Collection of Orientalist Paintings, London, 1991, p. 109). It is certainly obvious, particularly in the rendering of the fabrics and close attention to the physiognomies of his figures, that Ferraris had first-hand knowledge of Deutsch's method and technique.
The Blind Man is an example of the artist working at the height of his abilities. His training as a portrait painter serves him in good stead in the highly detailed faces of his subjects. He has chosen to depict childhood, youth and old age, all inexorably joined in the aged blind man, his youthful guide and the little girl holding a baby at his side. The serenity of age is clearly apparent on the face of the graybeard. He rests his hand lightly on the shoulder of his youthful guide, who in turn looks down to the little beggar girl and the baby. Despite his lack of sight, the old man is still able to pass along help to the little beggar girl, and the alms he gives is a metaphor for the wisdom and acceptance of the misfortunes of life which he has gained in his many years.
The attention to detail and virtuosity of brushwork which is so evident in the figures is also striking in the depiction of the architectural landscape which surrounds the figural group. Every detail of the intricate stonework patterns and the tile work of the alcove are minutely rendered and lend an aura of authenticity to the poignant scene.
Caroline Williams comments that architecturally the mosque appears to be a composite of various constituents that are truly observed rather than re-constituted in the artist's studio. The top of the mihrab (its arch and spandrel decoration) was definitely inspired by the mihrab in the Taybarsiya Madrasa, a 14th Century addition to the Mosque of al-Azhar, of which Ferraris had painted a very accurate portrayal in 1888. The niche decoration (of marble mosaic) is very characteristic of 1300-1350 mihrabs. The wooden geometric inset pattern of the minbar seems to have been copied from the Minbar of the Mosque of al-Maridani. While the architectural elements in this scene do not evoke a specific building or monument, each element in the scene has been acutely observed.
Ferraris often repeated characters in his compositions: the young girl holding the baby appears in Arriving at the Mosque (The Nadj Collection) (fig. 1) at the left edge of the composition, wearing the same red dress but with a black veil falling down her back. The old man is clearly fashioned on the cleric entering the mosque in the same composition.
As in Arriving at the Mosque, the artist has used a composition focusing on a central formal group, with additional figures intersperse throughout the canvas to add depth and to recreate the colorful activity of Cairo street life.
(fig. 1) Arthur von Ferraris, Arriving at the Mosque, Nadj Collection
Photo Courtesy: Mathaf Gallery