The Celebration signed 'J B-Huysmans' (lower right) oil on panel 63.5 x 91.44cm (25 x 36in).
PROVENANCE: Sale, Sotheby's Paris, 24 October 2007, lot 30
During the course of his long and prolific career, Jan Baptiste Huysmans visited Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Algeria. The sketchbooks, studies, paintings, and written accounts that resulted from these travels reveal an artist entranced by the cultures and landscapes he encountered and sensitive to the intricacies of local costume, accessory, and custom. It is all the more surprising, therefore, to find a picture such as The Celebration in Huysmans' Orientalist oeuvre. A group of Arab men spending their leisure hours with bottles of champagne seems a violation of everything that this veteran traveler would have known - as dictated by the Qur'an, Muslim religion strictly forbids the consumption of alcohol or any intoxicant, 5:90-91.
Huysmans' composition participates in a broader art historical tradition that can be traced to seventeenth-century Holland. (Huysmans' preference for painting on panel is also characteristic of this art.) Convivial genre scenes of men drinking, playing games, singing, and otherwise carousing abound in Dutch art from this period, inspiring generations of artists in the Netherlands and beyond. In the nineteenth century, the renewed popularity of such subjects among European audiences encouraged Orientalist painters to adopt similar conventions for themselves; rather than focusing on a sober and ethnographic approach, or on the topography of foreign surroundings, artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) produced scores of paintings in which Arab subjects were portrayed in more light-hearted moments, playing chess, strumming a lute, or blowing smoke at their favorite dog (Cf. The Chess Players, 1859; Bashi Bazouk Singing, 1868; Une plaisanterie [Arnaute fumant au nez d'un chien/Un lévrier qui n'aime pas le tabac] ).
Huysmans, a near contemporary of Gérôme, would certainly have known his works. After completing his studies at the Antwerp Academy in 1849, he traveled and exhibited extensively in France, England, and Scotland. Huysmans would also live in Paris for most of his professional life. Either in the galleries or through the wide dispersal of Gérôme's prints, Huysmans could not help but be aware of Orientalism's greatest master. Huysmans may also have been influenced by the popular British Orientalist painter John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876), whose "domesticated" Middle Eastern genre scenes were drawing effusive international praise.
In The Celebration, four Arab figures have gathered in a traditional North African house. Though Huysmans does not specify the location of this scene, the patterns on the tiles bear a close resemblance to Tunisian decorative work. Three of the men are seated on a built-in mastaba, or bench, while the other, a Nubian servant, hovers by the mastaba's railing to better see the impending show. The turbaned man over whose shoulder he leans is dressed in a woolen or wool and cotton blend abayah, its voluminous folds showing off the traditional pattern of broad brown and cream vertical stripes. Beneath this, he wears a purple qumbaz. His lightweight leather slippers have been removed and his bare feet rest on the thin woven reed mat that lies across the mastaba's seat. In the man's hands is a bottle of champagne. The label is illegible, but the gold foil at the neck indicates that it is a reputable French brand. Eyes trained forward, the man places his thumb on the cork, and readies himself to pop the bottle open. Interestingly, this figure bears a marked resemblance to Huysmans himself; Cf. The Artist Sketching in a Courtyard in Damascus, 1858. Such sly self-portraits were not uncommon in Orientalist pictures, and particularly in those by J. F. Lewis.
Seated across from this intently focused individual is another Arab figure. He wears the traditional North African djellaba, distinguished by its pointed hood. Though usually worn outdoors, for protection from the elements, this gray-bearded man has found another use for his woolen top: he draws it cautiously around his face, in order to shield it from the cork's possible trajectory. In his hand is a porcelain teacup, positioned to invite the first pour.
Beside this hesitant figure, and looking far more assured about the safety of his friend's endeavors, is a smartly dressed horseman. (He may be meant to represent a Spahi, or native light cavalrymen conscripted by the French army.) He wears gathered white salvar (here adorned with richly decorated leggings), a red sash (into which daggers were often tucked), a tailored red jacket with black embroidery, and an embroidered vest. His head is covered by a white hatta, which is secured by a black tassled agal, or rope. In one hand he holds a long-stemmed chibouk; in the other, he cradles a porcelain teacup. Like his partner, he has placed one bare foot atop the reed mat; the other foot, slipper still in place, rests on a small prayer rug. Its unusual geometries and colors suggest that it is drawn from the artist's imagination, as is its placement here.
In addition to this group of colorful figures, Huysmans has filled his composition with accessories that add anecdotal interest to the scene. Narghiles and additional chibouks are set on small painted tables and copper trays; a brass incense burner has been placed on the black and white tiled floor; two additional bottles of champagne await the men's attention, and, far to the right, a flag-shaped fan, woven from palm fronds, lies unneeded on the rug. On the windowsill, there is a clear glass bowl with a goldfish in it - an animal associated with the East's exotic wonders - and in the niche to the right, balanced precariously between the heads of two of the men, is a plate with a crescent moon on it, a symbol of Islam. Many of these details can be found in other Orientalist works by Huysmans, suggesting that they were personal souvenirs or studio props (Cf. Jugglers, 1883; Chef de Derviches benissant les enfants, 1885).
Such alien objects would have delighted Huysmans viewers, hungry for original genre subjects and information about the Muslim world, while the familiarity of the event portrayed a champagne toast would have made this "exotic" scene quite easy to comprehend. This particular conflation of themes, however, Muslim men and French alcohol, has a deeper meaning as well. The men in Huysmans' picture raise their glasses in defiance of their religion, seemingly unable to resist the influence of this valuable French import. Europeans' widely held beliefs about the weakness of Arab character would seem to be confirmed by this action, but so too does the corruptive impact of French colonial culture on North African souls.
We are grateful to Dr. Emily M. Weeks for writing the above note.