6 1/8” x 9 7/16” (15.5 x 24 cm) - Framed: 14 3/16”x 17 5/16” (36 x 44 cm)
Signed by the artist on the front and dedicated on the back:
"To Major Flatters
In memory of his warm welcome
Laghouat, 11 March 1878
Wood and stucco gilded frame with rich acanthus leaf, laurel leaf and ribbon motifs, 19th century
In this panel, painted during his stay in 1877 - 1878 in Laghouat, 400 kilometers south of Algiers, at the gateway to the Sahara Desert, Gustave Guillaumet tackles several of his favorite themes: the immensity of the desert, magnified by its distinctive light, the approach of a caravan, dominated by a camel topped by a palanquin.
The interest of this painting is further enhanced by the artist's dedication to Major Flatters. Flatters would meet a tragic end a few years later (in 1881), when the mission he commanded was massacred by Tuaregs at Bir-el-Garama in the Hoggar.
1. Gustave Guillaumet, a "Saharan" painter with a passion for Algeria
Gustave Guillaumet was born into a family of industrialists; this affluence allowed him to be financially independent throughout his life, which was quite rare in the artistic circles of the time. A student of François Edouard Picot (1786-1868) and Félix-Joseph Barrias (1822-1907) at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Gustave Guillaumet exhibited his paintings at the Salon from 1861 to 1880. He differed from most other Orientalist painters by his deep knowledge of the Orient, and more specifically of Algeria, which he discovered in 1862. He left for Italy after failing at the Prix de Rome in 1861, but the bad weather on his way encouraged him to take a boat to Algeria in Marseille.
Despite the malaria he caught there, which forced him to spend three months at the military hospital in Biskra, he returned enthusiastic about this country, where he went back a dozen times. He was the only painter to visit the extreme south of Algeria at that time, and in particular the Laghouat region, on the edge of the Sahara, which he discovered in 1877.
As François Mouquin wrote in 2018 in the catalogue of the exhibition devoted to Guillaumet: "his painting was not a simple genre painting. It was the portrait of a culture, that of Algeria, whose light he was able to master marvellously. He translated those customs, those traditional activities and the patriarchal life of this thousand-year-old civilisation, in a way which was better than any other could have done and equivalent to that of an ethnologist."
Guillaumet died at the age of forty-seven on 14 March 11887 in his studio located at 5 Cité Pigalle. He was buried in the Montmartre cemetery, where his grave has been decorated with a sculpture by Louis Barrias (the brother of his teacher at the Beaux-Arts) depicting a seated young Algerian woman.
2. Description of the painting and related works
Guillaumet depicts a caravan advancing through the desert. Massed around an Arabian camel topped by a scarlet palanquin - one of the painter's favorite motifs - a small troop of a dozen people, some on foot, others on horseback or on the back of another camel is accompanied by a herd of cattle. Their passage raises a cloud of dust in the bluish expanse of the desert.
The composition of the desert, punctuated by three successive bands (a lighter band in the foreground, a dark band in the middle where the caravan is moving forward, and finally the pinkish mountain line on the horizon) is reminiscent of one of Guillaumet's most famous paintings: The Sahara, also known as The Desert (now in the Musée d'Orsay). In this painting, the artist had depicted the carcass of a camel, at twilight, in the middle of an arid landscape, sketching in the background the passage of a caravan. This picture was painted in Paris at the end of August 1867 and was based more on the painter's memory than on direct observation of the desert. Its presentation at the 1868 Salon divided the critics between those who saw it as nothing more than a "Sahara of fantasy" and those who saw it as a true masterpiece. Among them was Théophile Gautier, who wrote about this painting that "the infinity of the desert [had] never been painted in a simpler, more grandiose and more moving way".
Gustave Guillaumet's stay in Laghouat in 1877-1878 marked a turning point in his painting. In his preface to Tableaux Algériens, the book he published after his friend's death, Eugène Mouton recounts how Guillaumet received in Laghouat the revelation he had been vainly seeking since his arrival: "He was there in the middle of the desert. The sunlight, reflected on the pinkish-grey sands and the brownish earth walls, had an astonishing quality that, for more than a week, prevented the painter from seeing or understanding the spectacle before his eyes. For eight days, Guillaumet, bewildered and dazzled by this unknown sun, wandered through the streets and around Laghouat, telling his wife every evening that he would find nothing to do, that he was wasting his time... But one morning Guillaumet returned radiant: the fiat lux had burst forth for him; the intoxication of the gaze had dissipated: his eyes were finally seeing this Sahara light, no longer dull and constant as he had thought in the early days, but radiant, vibrant, enveloping, kneading men and things with life and majesty. Canvases and brushes, hitherto kept in crates, were immediately unpacked; the painter prepared his palette, and a few minutes later he attacked the first of this marvellous series of studies from which were to emerge, among other masterpieces, the View of Laghouat (Salon of 1879) ."
The camel skeleton appears again in our landscape, as a nod to the painting in the 1868 Salon; the caravan has moved closer and its description is more faithful to the reality. But the light is now the real subject of the painting: the first rays of sunlight that are already hitting the mountains in the background, but above all the infinite variation of colors in the sky as the sun is rising up.
This painting also evokes the theme of the palanquin, one of Guillaumet’s favorite. He produced several paintings depicting Arabian camels carrying a palanquin. The study reproduced below, belonging to a private collection in Paris, gives us a close-up view of a palanquin like the one from the caravan.
3. Paul Flatters, soldier and explorer
The dedication on the back of the painting probably indicates the date on which Guillaumet left Laghouat : 11 March 1878. It bears witness to the welcome the artist received from Major Flatters, an interesting character who deserves to be described in greater detail.
Paul Flatters was born on 16 September 1832 in Laval. He was destined for the military and entered Saint-Cyr in 1851. He spent most of his career in Algeria, where he was posted right after his time in Saint-Cyr. He learned to read classical Arabic and spoke the vernacular language. Appointed Major in 1871, he was then based in Laghouat.
Promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1879, he headed a mission to study the possibility of creating a new trade route by establishing a trans-Saharan railway line between Algeria and Niger.
He set off from Ouargla (an oasis to the south-east of Laghouat) on 5 March 1880 and headed down into the south, but threats from the local population forced him to turn back and return to Ouargla on 17 May. He decided to set off again on 4 December for a second expedition of 93 men, including a dozen scientific and military members accompanied by native soldiers. The column made good progress for two months before coming under Tuareg attack on 16 February 1881 at Bir-al-Garama in the Hoggar (in the vicinity of Tamanrasset), during which most of the expedition was killed. Most of the survivors later died of thirst or poisoning in the desert, and only around twenty native soldiers managed to return to Ouargla.
When you read about Flatters' life, you understand his fascination with the desert, and this painting by Guillaumet takes on a special dimension. One can't look at this caravan emerging from the depths of the desert without thinking to the ill-fated mission that Flatters was to lead a few years later.
This panel is presented in a 19th century frame, which is probably its original frame. Entirely gilded with gold leaf, which is quite rare for this type of frame, it has a rich decoration of acanthus and laurel leaves, draped with ribbons in the corners, which is typical of the decorative taste of the late 19th century. In our opinion, this rather large frame works very well with the painting, enhancing the majesty of the landscape.
Main bibliographical references:
Gustave Guillaumet – Tableaux algériens – 1888 - Librairie Plon - Paris
(collective work produced for the 2018 exhibition) L’Algérie de Gustave Guillaumet – 2018 Gourcuff Gradenigo
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