This monumental painting is arguably the most sensational work depicting Damascus by the German Orientalist artist Gustav Bauernfeind. The detailed execution and the vibrant use of colour truly capture the allure of the East. Bauernfeind was born in the
town of Sulz-am-Neckar in Baden-ürttemberg, southern Germany. His education gave no indication that he would become one of the most accomplished artists of his era.
He had graduated from the Stuttgart Polytechnic Institute and joined an architectural firm. After an initial start at the office of Professor Wilhelm Baumer, he was employed by Adolf Gnauth (1840-1884) who was not only an architect and a professor at the Nuremberg School of Design, but also a moderately gifted painter. It was during his time in the employment of Gnauth that Bauernfeind transformed from architect to artist.
When travelling to Italy for a project for Gnauth’s firm in 1873 and 1874, Bauernfeind refined his artistic skills, executing with meticulous verisimilitude the architecture and nature of his surroundings. Although his attention to detail was remarkable, his
work found few interested buyers due to the rather mundane subject matter. He was advised to find a subject matter more en vogue and, very much aware of the financial opportunities awaiting a painter of Orientalist subjects, he looked to the East as his new source of inspiration. This marked a turning point in his career: a fundamentally different and exotic culture in which to study the sun, the light, the characters, customs and religious attitudes. Bauernfeind made three trips to the Orient during his lifetime before eventually settling there permanently.
For his first trip in 1880 he made enquiries through his sister and brother-in-law who were living in Beirut at the time. Before his voyage, they sent him a letter describing the area: ‘Everything which is in our power to do to make the Orient pleasant and interesting shall be done. Of course, I must tell you beforehand, you will find Syria to be no Italy. No such abundance of architectural art treasures are to be expected here; all the same, I should think that in spite of this, an artist could find a worthwhile field for his studies here, and would not regret his journey.
Beirut perhaps has the least to offer - in very great contrast to the highlands, which do not lack for ruined stately homes and castles. Damascus, too, is at all events interesting; I haven’t been there yet, but from what I’ve heard tell it is a city whose Oriental character is still the least diluted by European civilization’ (quoted in A. Carmel and H. Schmid, op. cit., p.91).
Although the unspoiled Eastern character of Damascus, as described by his sister, appealed highly to him; Bauernfeind would only properly discover the city during his second visit to the region in 1884. He describes it in a letter to his mother as ‘a city which has hardly been touched by civilization’.
After his initial two trips Bauernfeind left Germany for a third time to travel to the Middle East in 1888. His third visit to the region would turn out not only to be his longest but also his most extensively documented. Bauernfeind travelled to Jaffa where he had met his wife on his second trip four years earlier. In Jaffa he boarded an Egyptian steamer Fayiem which took him to Beirut from where
he travelled inland to Damascus. The city of Damascus was renowned for its silks and dried fruit. It is known to be one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. In its turbulent history it had been conquered numerous times.
From the Assyrians to Alexander the Great and from the ancient Egyptians to the British, all had made their contribution to its rich history. Once it was even part of the Ottoman Empire and during that time it was considered to be one of the leading centres after Constantinople, Cairo and Jerusalem. With its vast breadth of history comes an infinitely complex and rich cultural heritage.
Bauernfeind was truly enthralled by the city, its streets, its people and its buildings. He travelled the streets and, weather permitting, painted and sketched every day. He became a well-known figure in the city. He wrote: ‘I am almost known everywhere in
the city [Damascus] as the M’Sauer (painter), a triumph that does credit to my activity. It is an absolute delight to see how inquisitively these folk follow the doings of Europeans, and what hilarious comments they often make regarding the subject. My travelling hat has elicited a number of these. Some are quite amazed that I should have a parasol on my Tarboosh (the red hat they wear); others called me the Father of the Casserole (Abu Aanshereh) because my hat looked like I’d clapped a pot on my head...’ (op. cit., p.98). This personal experience was narrated by the artist in the captivating image A Street in Damascus in which the artist is surrounded by locals, all gathered around him in obvious curiosity (Fig 1).
Whilst sketching on December 2nd 1888 in the cotton bazaar or Sük el cotton he had to flee from the incessant curiosity of the local populace and climbed the rooftops in order to sketch the minaret of the Galciye Mosque in peace. The elevated location
did not provide him with the desired perspective and although weary of the crowds he decided to climb down. When taking a pause from his work he decided to visit the Umayyad Mosque for the first time. Its monumental architecture made an enormous
impression on him and he writes in his journal: ‘Have discovered a thankful subject: The gate of the Great Mosque. It will be difficult to paint it. If it is possible, I hope to create a beautiful painting. (G. Bauernfeind, Die Reise nach Damaskus, p. 14). On the
22nd of December he returned to the Great Mosque and writes in his journal that he has created a small watercolour of one of the entrances (Fig 2).
The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque, is believed to be the building site of an Armean Temple to the God of Hadad dating back to 3000 B.C.. Built in the 1st century AD and again renovated under Septimus Severus during 193-211 A.D.,
the site housed a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. Arcadius of the Byzantine Empire restored and converted the Roman temple into a Christian Church naming it the Church of St. John (395-408 A.D.) as it held a casket with the head of John the Baptist on display. Following the Arab conquest of the city Welid, son of Abd el-Melik and the sixth Umayyad Khalif, entered negotiations with the Christians residing in the city about the purchase of their rights over the location. ‘The Christians however declined to part with their Church, and it was then taken from them, either without compensation or according to a more probable account, in return for the guaranteed possession of several other churches in and around Damascus, which had not hithertobeen expressly secured to them. The Khalif himself is said to have directed the first blow to the altar, as a signal for its destruction, to the great grief of the Christians.
He then proceeded, without entirely demolishing the old walls, to erect a magnificent mosque on the site of the church. This building is extravagantly praised by Arabic authors, genii are said to have aided its construction, and 1,200 artists to have been summoned from Constantinople to assist. ... Antique columns were collected in the towns of Syria and used in the decoration of the mosque. The pavement and the lower walls were covered with the rarest marbles, while the upper parts of the walls and the dome were enriched with mosaics. The prayer niches were inlaid with precious stones and golden vines were entwined over the arches of the niches. The ceiling was of wood inlaid with gold, and from it hung 600 golden lamps. Prodigious sums are said to have been expended on the work. ... Omar ibn Abd el-Aziz (717-720 A.D.) caused the golden lamps to be replaced by others of less value. In 1609 part of the mosque was burned down and since the conquest of Damascus by Timurlane the building hasnever been restored to its ancient magnificence.’ (K. Baedeker, Palestine and Syria: handbook for travellers, Leipzig, 1876, p. 482).
Bauernfeind was clearly captivated by the Great Mosque. In the present lot all the inspiration that this extraordinary and historical place of worship offered comes to a crescendo. With his minute attention to detail he uses his paint to form a composition of near tangible reality. The architectural beauty offered the artist the ideal backdrop, challenging his skills of exactitude to the fullest. After first catching sight of the mosque on the 2nd of December 1888 he visited it nearly every day, investing large amounts of effort, and money, in acquiring sufficient material for the painting he envisioned. Money was needed not only to bribe the mosque’s wardens for informal permission to sketch there but also to pay the models he found in the streets. The drawings of models would later serve as the basis for the figures so elaborately depicted in the present lot.
In the oeuvre of the artist there is only one other painting of equal sublime quality, and monumental scale that depicts the Umayyad Mosque (Fig 3). Bauernfeind’s relentless quest for material, in combination with his unsurpassed talent, has given form to these works of true quality. His masterful use of colour and light, his richly attired figures and his exceptional understanding of the architecture are all irrefutably present in these iconic works of Damascus and make them without doubt the most monumental and sensational creations in the artist’s oeuvre.