Horace Vernet – The Arab Tale-teller (1833)

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.

Horace Vernet - The Arab Tale-teller
Horace Vernet – The Arab Tale-teller (1833), oil on canvas

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.

13 thoughts on “Horace Vernet – The Arab Tale-teller (1833)

  1. You know the girl on the left is supposed to represent the elegance of African and middle eastern women, although Vernet played to a common thought stream with the men sitting on the floor, effectively in the dirt, denoting the thoughts at the time of an uncivilised society. Vernet plays on this by having the group of men sitting during the day, smoking pipes and story telling. It was his observation of a society without industry. Also he has used the technique of West meets east with the almost European background style despite his many trips to Algeria. Despite all that, the picture is fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting, so you think the girl’s pose is ultimately a compliment to African women’s beauty/virtue? It ends up having this implication that the woman is then superior to the men, which would have been a really progressive thing to be suggesting. I find that pose very intriguing, it’s clearly contrived.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, the woman’s pose is actually very Grecian, with the way the water pitcher is balanced. She is still subservient as she is bringing water while they sit and chat. This said eastern women have always been considered elegant and exotic, but whether she is superior or not is another matter entirely.

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