An Ottoman encampment signed and dated 'Ad Schreyer. 55.' (lower left) oil on canvas 79.5 x 107cm (31 5/16 x 42 1/8in).
PROVENANCE: Private collection, Germany Sale, Sotheby's London, 13 June 2006, lot 223 Private collection, Switzerland
Adolf Schreyer was one of 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), Schreyer's paintings were included in 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 Schreyer's technique vastly different from the tightly painted, intensely detailed of his German and Austro-Hungarian colleagues was perfectly suited to his preferred subject matter, the Arab rider and his horse. 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 Prince's 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 Schreyer's career - and indeed his life.
While in Algeria, Schreyer immersed himself in the local culture, learning several Arab dialects and riding with Bedouin horsemen. Later years found him in Paris (until the Franco-Prussian war forced him to leave) and, after 1870, the German artist's 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 Schreyer's 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, Schreyer's vigorously painted geographies are not mere backdrops by any stretch of the imagination.
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 Schreyer's Algerian subjects remain so highly prized today.
1 Fromentin's Lettres de jeunesse, ed. Pierre Blanchon, Paris, 1909, p 240.