The metalworker signed 'R. Ernst' (lower right) oil on canvas 81.3 x 63.5 cm (32 x 25in).
PROVENANCE: Sale, Sotheby's New York, 5 May 1999, lot 207 Sale, Christie's London, 21 June 2001, lot 70 With Mathaf Gallery, London Purchased from the above by present owner
One of the most celebrated and successful Orientalist painters of the 19th Century, Rudolf Ernst studied at the Vienna Academy, where his father was an architectural painter and member, and in the studios of Eisenmenger and Feuerbach. Like many of his peers, Ernst was destined for Paris where he eventually settled in 1876. He traveled extensively throughout the 1880s to Turkey, Moorish Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, and these trips inspired Ernst, a genre painter and portraitist, to devote his work to Orientalist themes. Like his friends and contemporaries, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Ludwig Deutsch, Ernst had collected an impressive group of artifacts during his time abroad such as tiles, lamps, silks, kaftans and pottery. These items were regularly used as props in many of his paintings and came to reflect Ernst's fascination with light and texture.
His compositions relied heavily on the escapist sentiment of 19th Century audiences, and his use of intricate architecture and bold colors appealed to commercial demands for depictions of the exotic and unknown Orient. The international expositions that took place in Vienna and Paris between 1867 and 1900, which featured Islamic art, were favorite 'study sites' of the artist, and Ernst's trademark became incorporating elements of the real with a more imagined mise-en-scène. He even went on to learn faïence tile painting techniques from the Parisian ceramist and glass maker, Léon Fargue, and exhibited his works at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français for over sixty years.
With a mastery likened to stage design, Ernst's paintings were often dramatic scenes of the private contemplation, weighty presentation and devotion of noble figures cloaked in finery. He frequently incorporated elaborate doorways with worked carpentry or marble masonry to frame and heighten the might of his subjects. Even the every day figure, such as the humble merchant sitting in his alleyway stall in The metalworker, is emboldened with the presence of hanging textiles, painted archways and pottery. The eye is drawn to the handiwork of this painting's subject, coppery metal bowls most likely modeled after those in Ernst's own collection, and then to the warm yellow tones of the omnipresent archway leading the viewer out of the alley. The result is a picturesque street scene made glorious by Ernst's generous imagination, and like many of his works, The metalworker is a fantastic example of Ernst's rich palate, keen eye for detail, and passion for Eastern decorative arts.