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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Rugs in Orientalist paintings

by Filiberto Boncompagni

Part I : Charles Robertson.

Among my few books on rug I have one by Jon Thompson: "Carpets From the Tents, Cottages, and Workshops of Asia." Most of you will surely know it, although it has different editions and slightly different titles.

It is an interesting book with nice photos, some of which are of old paintings with Oriental rugs.
The one that attracted mostly my attention is "A carpet sale in Cairo", a watercolor by the British painter Charles Robertson (1844-91). As Thompson notes, it "portrays a number of identifiable carpets, including three Caucasians, a Turkish flatwoven  prayer rug and an Uzbeq embroidery hanging over the balcony."

Charles Robertson, A Carpet Sale

Charles Robertson A Carpet Sale

I have been living in the Middle East for several years now, including three in Cairo. Since then I had the occasion to visit several houses, public buildings and so on and I became convinced  that the appreciation for Caucasian rugs - or anyway for textiles with bold tribal-like geometrical design - was confined mostly to Westerners. Locals here tend to prefer the Arabesque style,  the floral, curvilinear design of workshop rug production.

So, how comes Robertson’s painting showed so many Caucasians in 19th century Cairo?

As Thompson notes, the nineteenth century saw an increasing interest, in the West, for oriental rugs. Merchants "brought their wares to the trading centres such as Bukhara, Shiraz, Mashhad, Tabriz  and Tiflis, from where they were transported in bales by camels, mostly to Constantinople, as it was called at the time, and then shipped to the west…"

Very often paintings of that time showed Western interiors adorned with "a rug or carpet,  usually a tribal or village weaving from the Middle East".
Tribal or village… that means, among other things, Caucasian. And the last quarter of 19th C  saw also the arrival of Caucasian rugs on the Western market, where they encountered a very good appreciation.

In the M.E. rugs and carpets have always been used as home furnishing. This is a long established tradition, so I do not think that the "Oriental rug customer" was influenced by the western fashion at the time.
On the other hand, the center of rug trade was Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire…
And the Middle East was largely part of that - albeit slowly fading -  Empire… So, the main rug source for most of the Near East and the West was the same.

Thompson adds also: "Nineteenth-century painting, potentially a rich source of information, has yet to be explored."

That gave me the idea of making a little research on oriental rugs in Orientalist paintings.

My resources are quite limited: a couple of books and the web, and do I not pretend by any means to have performed a comprehensive investigation. The idea is rather to present a few facts and paintings and stimulate  a discussion on the subject.

First of all it is better to make clear that Orientalism in painting doesn’t correspond to a particular style. It’s rather a theme crossing different painting movements of 19th century until the beginning of the 20th. The Orientalists  were travelers, they visited the Orient and their paintings were the result of their experiences. (To be precise, Orientalism encompasses other arts and disciplines, including politics, but this is another matter.)
There were even "Orientalist" painters who never traveled and painted oriental subjects of pure invention.

Here we’ll discuss only about those "traveler" painters.

A word on technique. The oil technique requires time. In most cases the artists used to make sketches or watercolors on the spot and then make the oil paintings in their studios, often using professional models, once they returned at home.
For example Delacroix, during his only "oriental" travel (Spain, and Morocco) filled seven notebooks with sketches and notes that he used upon his return to Paris for the next 30 years…

I’m going to present a few pictures. What I’d like to hear from you is:

- how much do you grade, in terms of percentage, the truthfulness of a painting, with 100% meaning the painting is a faithful reproduction of a real-life Oriental scene and 0% the painting is pure "artistic" invention.

- identification of the rugs in the painting and incidental comments and opinions on them (or anything else, if you like).

I’ll start with two artists. Others will follow in the next weeks.

Charles Robertson (1844-1891) : Member of  Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour and of the Royal Society of Painters, Etchers and Engravers.
I found out that he made frequent and long travels in the Orient but no more details.
He worked exclusively with oil until 1880, and exclusively with watercolors after 1884, so I guess that between 1880 and 1884 he used both techniques.

Charles Robertson,  Carpet Bazaar, Cairo  watercolor (I think) dated 1887
Charles Robertson,  Carpet Bazaar, Cairo dated 1887

Charles Robertson, A Carpet Sale  (again) watercolor, not dated and not situated.
Charles Robertson, A Carpet Sale

Charles Robertson 1, detail of the above painting

Charles Robertson 1 detail

Charles Robertson 2 detail of the same 

Charles Robertson 2 detail

Charle Robertson 3 detail of the same 

Charles Robertson 3 detail

Charles Robertson 4 detail of the same

Charles Robertson 4 detail 

Charles Robertson The Bazaar Khan El Khaleelee Cairo watercolor,  signed and situated on old label.

Charles Robertson The Bazaar Khan El Khaleelee Cairo

CharlesRobertson detail of the above
Charles Robertson Chajli

 Part II

 Part III

 Part IV

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