L'Arabe et son cheval signed and dated 'E.Dinet 1903' (lower left) oil on canvas 50.8 x 40.64cm (20 x 16in). Painted in 1903.
PROVENANCE: Walter W. Lange, Milwaukee, 1921 Rev Ralph J. Alstadt, Milwaukee Henry R. Slaby, Milwaukee By descent to the present owner
EXHIBITED: Düsseldorf, Exposition Internationale, 1904, no 505
LITERATURE: E. Dinet and S. Ben Ibrahim, Mirages, 1906, p 73 E. Dinet and S. Ben Ibrahim Tableaux de la vie arabe, 1908, p 51 E. Dinet and S. Ben Ibrahim, Tableaux de la vie arabe, 1922, p 59 D. Brahimi, La vie et l'uvre de Etienne Dinet, Courbevoie, 1984, p 36, pl 64
Few Orientalist artists are remembered as national icons in the countries they depicted. Yet Alphonse-Étienne Dinet (1861-1929), a French-born and Paris-trained painter secured the posthumous reputation of 'master' in Algeria where he lived and worked for almost fifty years. The son of a prosperous lawyer, Dinet first completed his military service in Normandy before enrolling in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Galland atelier where he studied painting and anatomy, eventually moving onto the Académie Julian for the remainder of his education. His paintings received critical acclaim at the Salon des Artistes Français and afterward, Dinet embarked on the first of many trips to Algeria in1884 with a team of entomologists. He returned the following year and completed his first two works inspired by the region, Les Terrasses de Laghouat and L'Oued M'sila après l'Orage. During his third trip in 1886, Dinet, along with thirteen other artists including Paul Leroy and Baron Arthur Chassériau, formed the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français with Jean-Léon Gérôme and Benjamin Constant as honorary presidents, and Léonce Bénédite, Conservator of the Musée du Luxembourg, as president.
In 1888, Dinet took important steps to solidify his growing interest in North Africa: he enrolled in formal Arabic classes at the Oriental Language School in Paris and returned to Algeria for a fourth time, accompanied by the young guide, Sliman Ben Ibrahim, with whom Dinet was to eventually live and collaborate with for many years. Dinet's work was displayed in the Algerian pavilion at the Universal Exhibition of 1889, where he would also win the silver medal for painting, and following this surge of publicity, Dinet helped found the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts along with thirteen other artists. In 1904, after spending many months of each year in Algeria, Dinet decided to create a more permanent base for himself in-country and bought a house in the southern Saharan city of Bou-Saada.
Delving deeper into Orientalist themes with his work now spanning two continents, Dinet had a respected place among the desert culture he drew inspiration from. Having rejected early representations of the Maghreb modeled after exotic scenes taken from Greek and Roman antiquity, Dinet was a stunning realist, focused more on the interactions between natives, representations of women and manifestations of the Muslim religion. Despite his numerous paintings of nude Algerian youths he was, surprisingly, never wanting for indigenous models Dinet's paintings lack the frank eroticism of his counterparts who illustrated an Orient full of reclining odalisques oozing sensuality.
Employing the use of photography to capture the fleeting expressions of his models, Dinet's cinematic approach was far removed from the disengaged reserve of fin-de-siecle aesthetics which lent an air of theatricality. His landscapes lack exaggerated romanticism and his depictions of women, a favorite subject, hold no territorial claims over the eastern body seen through western eyes. With his conversion to Islam in 1908 and made formal in 1913, Dinet used his nudes to express a right to represent beauty as created by God, rather than the purely voyeuristic impressions of imagined, private moments.
With such composites frequenting the canvases of his contemporaries, it is easy to criticize the Orientalist genre of painting Dinet came to define as perpetuating the mythology of an 'empire of the senses' free from the restraints of western civilization and encompassing a timeless zone of primitivism. Yet, this argument is precisely why Dinet is so important to the history and popularity of Orientalist art. With each brush stroke, Dinet penetrated the deeper themes of family, faith and survival unique to the Saharan life he shared with his subjects instead of skimming the surface decor of earlier Orientalist painters passing through the region.
Never seeking out the exceptional or strange for subject matter, Dinet believed the mission of his art was to describe the souls of his models, express the essence of a people, and to celebrate his own adopted faith of Islam. With those tasks in mind, Dinet also collaborated with his friend, Ben Ibrahim, on translating and illustrating books about Algeria, such as Khadra, Danseurs des Ouled Nails and Tableaux de la vie Arabe, which became quintessential to foreign understanding and perceptions of North Africa. In the words of Léonce Bénédite, Dinet "became an Arab, a cultured Arab, who clung desperately to the last vestiges of greatness of his race."
With his painting, L'Arabe et son cheval, Dinet's talent for capturing psychology and detail is evident, from the prayer beads around the neck of the rider swathed in white cloth, to the horse's colorful bridle, and background of soft desert mountains. It is one of the only paintings by the artist where the individual appears to be posing, with the rider's steely, direct stare towards the viewer, as Dinet's preferred work state was somewhat spontaneous with the reliance on his camera to capture more permanent scenes. L'Arabe also represents a distinct departure from Dinet's usual cast of playful Berber adolescents and groups of women, illustrating instead a common trio found in Orientalist works of art: a man, his horse and the desert they travel together. The unique curved shape of the top of the canvas is reminiscent of the arched dome commonly found in Middle Eastern architecture, especially the circular construction of mosques. With the maturation of his talent, Dinet became an arch-realist and an authority on Algerian life rather than an exotic maker of myth.
Shortly after making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Dinet died in his native France in 1929. Today in Bou-Saada, where he was eventually buried, The Nasreddine-Etienne Dinet Museum stands as a testament to Dinet's unique place in the history of Orientalist painters. Though later on in his career to be found behind the times by his peers, Dinet and his true understanding of Saharan life lend his works encapsulating the history and peoples of Algeria an authenticity rarely surpassed. The art critic Camille Mauclair predicted Dinet's staggering importance in the history of Orientalist painters: "Later on, they (Dinet's canvases) will be incomparable references; they will have fixed without the coldness of archaeology a civilization and a race called upon to transform themselves to the point of travesty by the fatalities of a 'modernism' that is slowly killing the Orient." By allowing his models to face forward rather than backward to the suit the tastes of a time obsessed with antiquity, the work of Etienne Dinet acts as a rich cultural currency towards understanding a way of life now transformed yet far from forgotten.
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