In the first of these two articles looking at a selection of paintings of deserts, I showed how the naive images of the old masters were replaced by accurate depictions from the early nineteenth century, when artists started travelling to the Middle East and North Africa. This article takes up the story as Orientalism became popular in European painting.
While the more famous painters of the day were more interested in pandering to the rich men who frequented the Salon, with fleshly dreams of harems and concubines, lesser-known landscape painters like Alberto Pasini and Eugen Bracht returned with more realistic accounts.
Pasini’s work includes many ‘action’ scenes, such as 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 sketchier 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.
Alberto Pasini’s painting of The Caravan of the Shah of Persia from 1867 is a superbly wide view of an extensive royal caravan crossing a desert plain, including a couple of elephants at the right.
From 1880-81, Eugen Bracht travelled through the Middle East, in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Dusk on the Dead Sea from 1881 shows the unearthly landscape on the shore of this famous lake, its parched land strewn with the desiccated remains of trees.
Bracht’s paintings of the Middle East avoid the crowded and bustling towns, preferring the barren desert in which just a handful of people travel with their camels In the Arabian Desert (1882).
From the Sinai Desert (1884) shows more groups on the move in the relentless heat.
Later, when Bracht’s style became distinctly Impressionist, he revisited his Orientalism in this view of Um-Baghek on the Dead Sea (1891), with its more painterly brushwork and rich colours.
The Australian artist Charles Conder was no stranger to hot and arid environments, having painted an Australian drought.
Conder captured the searing heat of the drought in his Hot Wind, painted in 1889, the year before he moved to Europe, using only simple if unusual objects. He also borrows from the Renaissance device of making visible the thin stream of breath blowing from the woman’s mouth, which had been standard in conjunction with the rounded cheeks of a zephyr or similar.
Religious works had come a long way from the naive depictions of Poussin. One of James Tissot’s hundreds of Biblical paintings in gouache, The Gathering of the Manna (c 1896-1902) was better-informed even if the coloured stripes in the distance are unreal.
North American artists had also discovered the unusual beauty of deserts.
Frederick Childe Hassam travelled to the desert in Harney County in eastern Oregon to paint Harney Desert Landscape in 1904, and returned to paint more four years later.
When Marsden Hartley returned to the USA from Berlin in 1915, he resumed landscape painting, and visited New Mexico from June 1918, where he repeatedly painted the landscapes of Arroyo Hondo (1918), here in pastel. Hartley claimed that this area was “the only place in America where true color exists, excepting the short autumnal season in New England.”
With that, it’s back to winter, whose grey days only reinforce that opinion.