At the start of the nineteenth century, seen from Europe, the world didn’t extend much further east than Turkey and the east Mediterranean seaboard (including Palestine). Visitors to, and images of, the countries beyond were scarce indeed.
One of the artists who opened up what was then considered to be ‘the Orient’ was the Italian Alberto Pasini (1826–1899). In this and the next article I show a few of his magnificent paintings of what is now the Middle East.
Pasini’s father died when he was an infant, and he moved with his mother to the city of Parma, in central north Italy, famous now for its prosciutto or Parma ham. He trained at the Academy of Fine Art in the city, where he specialised in landscapes. He was also taught by an uncle, who was a painter and illuminator of manuscripts. His potential was recognised, and he travelled to Paris, where he started to work in studios.
In 1853, one of his lithographs was exhibited at the Salon, and he moved to work in the workshop of the brilliant but short-lived Théodore Chassériau, who had been a pupil of JAD Ingres, had visited Algeria, and was an Orientalist. Pasini was producing impressive work, and as Chassériau’s health failed, the teacher nominated his pupil as the official painter to support a French ministerial tour to Persia.
During the late 1850s into the 1860s, Pasini travelled extensively in Persia, Armenia, Turkey, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula, usually as part of an official diplomatic mission.
The earliest of Pasini’s paintings that I have found is this marvellous depiction of Al-Khudayri Street, Cairo from 1861, eight years after he had first exhibited at the Salon. It is typical for the works now accessible, in being thoroughly realist and highly-detailed. Although it has been claimed to show the ancient Ibn Tulun mosque, its famous spiral minaret, and the Saladin fortress in the city, it looks to me to be more of a composite inspired by those buildings, rather than a faithful depiction.
The street below is bustling with those passing through, and the market stalls to the right. Pasini has been careful not to show the face of any of the figures, though.
During his travels in the Middle East, Pasini must have become very familiar with the sight of An Arab Camp (1866), shown here at a small watering place. From the dress and preponderance of horses, this was probably further north into Syria or even Turkey.
Pasini’s work includes many ‘action’ scenes, including battles, although few are now accessible. His painting of an Arab Caravan from 1866 shows a large caravan negotiating difficult terrain, which includes ancient ruins.
More camels feature in this more sketchy painting of Caravan in the Desert from 1867. His sky is remarkably painterly, and I feel sure that the likes of Eugène Boudin would have been proud of it at that time.
The Caravan of the Shah of Persia from 1867 is more finished: a very wide view of an extensive royal caravan crossing a desert plain, with rugged mountains in the distance. There are even a couple of elephants at the right.
Pasini’s great forte, if these surviving paintings are anything to go by, was the marketplace. He lived in Constantinople (also Istanbul, which has been its only name since 1928) for periods of up to nine months, and became very familiar with the often ad hoc markets which set up wherever trading vessels came alongside. Market in Istanbul (Constantinople) from 1868 captures the cosmopolitan nature of these markets, and the whole city, mixing cultures, beliefs, eras, and technologies so gloriously.
Despite their apparent detail, Pasini’s paintings are relatively small, none here exceeding 90 cm (36 inches) in either dimension. The Met’s painting of A Mosque from 1872 is one of his larger works, and appears a more formal composition. A high-ranking person has just arrived in their decorated carriage to attend this mosque (see detail below), where they are greeted by a very casually turned-out guard, at the left.
In the right foreground is one of Pasini’s trademark melon sellers, who appear in so many of his paintings.
There is currently an exhibition of Pasini’s paintings at Fondazione Magnani Rocca in Parma, Italy, the artist’s home town. It closes, though, on 1 July 2018. Further details, and more magnificent paintings, are here.