In the late 19th century, Frederick Arthur Bridgman was considered one of the most prominent of the American expatriate artists. Trained in Paris under the tutelage of the greatest of the French orientalist painters, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bridgman came to represent the embodiment of the American fascination with the Middle East.
Bridgman’s first contact with the Orient came during 1872-1873 on two extended trips to North Africa. At the time, Americans traveled to this region much less than their European counterparts, but the young artist made his way to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and then to Egypt and a trip up the Nile. Bridgman was captivated by the Near East, particularly Algiers, and would return there often, driven by the desire to capture the life and light of this exotic place. Bridgman was determined to depict its landscape and inhabitants in the most authentic terms possible, and to this end he paid meticulous attention to the details of costumes, interiors, architecture and furnishings, many of which he brought back from his travels and kept in his studio.
During his second visit to North Africa, Bridgman spent more time outside the cities, and his experience of the landscape and the light of the desert was to change his art. The effects of this are clearly evident in An Arab Encampment. The artist’s fascination with natural light and its effect on color and texture would dominate the later years of his oeuvre. Even his later interiors are open and light and executed in a glowing palette that departs radically from his earlier work and, more significantly, from the works of his master Gérôme. Along with this renewed interest in the effects of the light of the East came broader and more fluid brushwork. As atmosphere became more important to the artist, detailed precision became less so. One of Bridgman’s reviewers in 1880 wrote: ‘Here were vivid impressions of actual things, and vivid ways of recording those impressions. Here was feeling for color, and for tone, and more atmosphere, and for light and dark. Here were breadth of touch, rapacity of handling and strong effects. Here were vigor and earnestness that was not deliberation…studies undertaken…with an artist’s wish to fix forever the fleeting aspect that had charmed him’ (van Renssalaer, American Art Review, 2 June 1881, 50-51, pp. 180,183 of American Art and American Collections, reprint).
Everett Shinn wrote in the same year, ‘The painter’s hardest task is to get the color, the vivacity, the directness of the first sketch into the more ambitious and deliberate finished pictures and Bridgman has satisfied this demand with an unusually slight loss of power’ (E. Shinn, Art Amateur, no. 4, March 1881, p. 71).
An Arab Encampment is a perfect example of the artist working at the height of his career. The scene is set in a mountainous landscape with horses and riders preparing for a rest beside a running river. The heat is palpable, and the riders have removed the saddles from the horses who stand in the cool shade of a stand of palm trees. The figures, swathed in their white robes, pass the hottest hours of the day resting in shade. The atmosphere is one of heat and stillness; even the horses stand completely still in the shade of a tree. All of this is captured in broad brushstrokes executed in bold slashes of bright red-oranges which emphasize both the heat and the exotic nature of the scene. What Bridgman has reached for, and attained, in An Arab Encampment is the warmth, light and mood of a languid afternoon in an exotic land.
We are grateful to Dr. Ilene Susan Fort for confirming the authenticity of this work on the basis of a photograph.