Bedouin riders signed 'Ad.Schreyer' (lower right) oil on canvas 61.5 x 112cm (24 3/16 x 44 1/8in).
Provenance: H.W.Hoover,Jr., Bal Harbour, Florida; Thence by descent; Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Exhibited: Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Paine Art Center, 'Adolph Schreyer, An International Exhibition', 8 June - 30 July 1972, illustrated (lent by H.W.Hoover,Jr.).
Adolf Schreyer (1828-1899) must number among the most successful Orientalist painters of his generation. A favourite with both the German aristocracy and the most celebrated American families of the Gilded Age (including the Astors, Morgans, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts), Schreyers paintings were at the centre of numerous international collections. Indeed, in his Critical Review of the Paintings, Statuary and the Graphic Arts in The Palace of Fine Arts at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition , Professor and Exposition Judge Eugen Neuhaus observed that, Adolph [sic] Schreyer . . . with his Bedouin pictures, was the pet of the art lovers in his day, and pictures like this can be found in almost every collection in the world.
The bravura of Schreyers technique vastly different from the tightly painted, intensely detailed, and impossibly lucid canvases of his German and Austro-Hungarian colleagues was perfectly suited to his preferred subject matter, the Arab rider and his horse. The present work well demonstrates the magnificence that Schreyer could achieve with his equestrian pictures, and why his name should be included alongside those of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and Eugène Fromentin (1820-1876), as a master of the genre.
Schreyer began his study of equine anatomy in Germany, at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut and, at the urging of his teacher Jakob Becker (1810-1872), the Düsseldorf Academy. Later, he settled in Vienna, where he specialised in landscapes and military subjects, then much in demand. In 1855, after travelling to Turkey, Wallachia and southern Russia with the Prince of Thurn and Taxis, Schreyer accompanied the Princes regiment as an artist-reporter, assigned to cover the Crimean War (1854-7). By 1859, Schreyer had visited Syria and Egypt and, in 1861, Algeria. It was the latter country, and the sketches that he made there, that would change the course of Schreyers career - and indeed his life.
While in Algeria, Schreyer immersed himself in the local culture, learning several Arab dialects and riding with Bedouin horsemen. (The term 'Bedouin' comprises several tribes of nomadic herders and traders located throughout the Middle East and North Africa.) Later years found him in Paris (until the Franco-Prussian war forced him to leave), and, after 1870, the German artists colony of Kronberg. Schreyer exhibited his pictures of Eastern European peasants and soldiers alongside countless variations on the theme of the Arab horseman at the Paris Salon and across Europe. His efforts were rewarded with medals in 1864, 1865, 1867, and 1876.
During the course of Schreyers thirty-year long career, violent, even frenzied depictions of Algerian horsemen at battle eventually gave way to more calculated compositions, in which elaborately dressed Arab figures ride through rough terrain, either singly or in groups. Like his mentor Fromentin, Schreyer often accorded the landscapes in these images an exaggerated role, infusing them with the dominant colours of North Africa. Rather than the cool view of the younger artist, however, who admitted to being overwhelmed by the advent and triumph of gray(1), Schreyer adopted a richer and more vibrant palette. From the expansive blue skies, accented with white clouds, to the ochre, brown and rust-red ground, Schreyers vigorously painted geographies are not mere backdrops, by any stretch of the imagination.
In subject, style, and inscription, the present painting is entirely characteristic of Schreyers mature Orientalist work (2). The detail of the costumes of each of these Arab riders, their red and brilliant white burnouses cascading to their feet, merges seamlessly with the animated facture seen elsewhere. Always walking the line between impressionism and realism, Schreyer avoids the intrusive, ethnographic, and distinctly late-nineteenth-century approach of many of his European colleagues. And perhaps this, along with the compelling humanity of his endless stream of horsemen, is why Schreyers Algerian subjects remain so highly prized today.
Though there is no indication as to the identity of these Arab figures, or where the scene is set, history provides a possible clue (3). In 1871, compelled by religion and nationalist sentiment, 100,000 Algerian tribesmen had waged war on the occupying French forces. Perhaps, and despite his French connections, Schreyers determined riders are heading to the fight. The spear of the rider on the left, silhouetted against a blue and rose sky, recalls a minaret, and surely it is pride in country that possesses his high-stepping steed. As the group marches stoically forth, like Roman heroes across their Empire, we feel that Schreyer is speaking less to a European audience than to the Arabs he once travelled among, and is encouraging their political success.
(1) This quote comes from Fromentins Lettres de junesse, ed. Pierre Blanchon, Paris, 1909, p 240. (2) The abbreviated signature, located at lower right, was often used by Schreyer. Also typical is the lack of a precise date. (3) Though the red and white colours worn by some of these riders might suggest that they are spahis, or local Algerian men.