Émile Jean-Horace Vernet (1789 – 1863) was a French Romantic painter, best known for his very detailed battle scenes and noble portraits.
Very early on in his career, Vernet was commissioned by the duke of Orléans, the future King Louis – Philippe, to depict important battle scenes from France’s recent history. After the duke became a monarch in July 1830, the artist’s career took off. Vernet impressed everyone with his grand scale, very detailed technique and historical accuracy in his battle paintings, becoming on of the court’s favourites, not only during King Louis – Philippe’s time, but also after Napoléon III followed him in 1848.
The Arab Tale-teller was painted during that time, when Vernet’s life and career had reached its peak. After having achieved great success at the Salon in 1826 and 1827, he was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome (1829 – 1834). The Arab Tale-teller was painted in Rome in 1833, after Vernet had just visited Algeria, and it shows a group of Algerians listening to the stories of an Arab. They are all seated down comfortably in a circle, smoking their long pipes, yet their faces remain incredulous. The tale-teller is clearly an outsider, as revealed by his clothes – the Arab is wearing white and gray stripes, while the rest of the men are dressed in white.
Starting with the left, we have an interesting diagonal showing the three most important characters in this scene: (i) a woman standing and holding a pitcher in an elegant pose, (ii) the Algerian chieftain, seated against a tree, whose judgment will validate or discredit the guest’s stories and (iii) the Arab tale-teller that is gesticulating with his hands and must convince his audience of the authenticity of his words.
According to art critics, the woman’s pose is highly controversial in its praise of colonialism. Reminiscent of Venus de Milo, the statuesque classicism of her figure symbolizes the nobility that Vernet and other European artists had brought to the people of North Africa.