Traces of the Hand: Master Drawings from the Collection of Frederick and Lucy S. Herman
A Group of Bedouins, 1846–1876
Black and white chalk on grey wove paper
12 3/4 x 19 1/4in, 32.39 x 48.9 cm (sheet)
Inscription: (verso) "8" in pencil
Collector’s Mark: Herman Collection mark
Provenance: Atelier stamp and number from Fromentin studio sale, 1877, number 183 (Lugt 957);
acquired from Bernard Houthakker, Amsterdam, 1971
Gift of The Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Foundation, 2007.15.36
The French painter Eugène Fromentin is best known today for his book Les Maîtres d'autrefois (The Masters of Past Time, 1876), a commentary on Rubens, Rembrandt, and other Dutch and Flemish masters, which significantly influenced the development of art criticism through its eloquent prose and discussion of technique.1 Fromentin’s pictorial style descended from the romanticism of Delacroix, and in both his literary works and his artistic oeuvre he straddled the line between the real and idealized.2 Under the tutelage of the academic painter Louis Cabat, Fromentin was encouraged to represent the world, and although this influence translated into his use of observational sketching, Fromentin continued to imbue his paintings with the academic standard of idealized beauty.3
Fromentin’s artistic direction was fundamentally transformed in 1846 when chance circumstances brought him to Algiers. Fromentin grew enamoured with the "Orient," both its landscape and its people, whose dignity he admired and whose exoticism was popular with viewers. Fromentin made two subsequent, more extensive journeys to North Africa, which he documented with numerous drawings and journal entries. These served as source material for some of his greatest paintings and two of his books, Une Année dans le Sahel (A Year in the Sahel, 1859) and Un Été dans le Sahara (A Summer in the Sahara, 1857). Although Fromentin’s sketches were the result of careful study during his travels, they are not ethnographic records of North Africa’s native tribes, but instead present types, ennobled Arab ideals.4 Individualizing features are absent in the Herman drawing, and the figures sport similar garments and facial hair. Nor did Fromentin explore in painting or prose North Africa’s political atmosphere, which was unstable as natives continued to rebel against French colonial rule. Though aware of the deficiencies of colonial rule, he favored instead a more general, romanticized depiction of the region.5
A Group of Bedouins is not a finished work but a preliminary sketch which remained in Fromentin’s studio until the sale of his estate in 1877 and was most likely executed in preparation for another work. During the course of execution Fromentin made adjustments to the drawing’s composition, broadening it with the addition of the figure on the far left. Although the same sale consisted of a number of life drawings from Fromentin’s second stay in Africa (1847), A Group of Bedouins was probably drawn in the studio rather than from life as an attempt to work out the composition of the figure group before its insertion into another scene.6 As a studio drawing, A Group of Bedouins reveals the intermediate stage of Fromentin’s process of transforming his observational sketches into Salon-worthy paintings of the exotic and romantic Orient.
Emily Fenichel Colleen Bowen
1. Meyer Schapiro, "Introduction," in Eugène Fromentin, The Old Masters of Belgium & Holland, trans, New York, 1963, ix and xiv–xvi; Barbara Wright, Eugène Fromentin: A Life in Art and Letters. Bern, 2000, 534.
2. Schapiro, "Introduction," xxxiv–xxxv; Wright, Fromentin, 51.
3. Wright, Fromentin, 51–55.
4. Wright, Fromentin, 284–288.
5. Wright, Fromentin, 251–258, 309–310. See also Roger Benjamin, Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa, 1880–1930, Berkeley, CA, 2003, 17–18.
6. Wright, Fromentin, 186–187.