Sunday, February 15, 2015

Benjamin Constant and Orientalism

The Montreal Art Museum has opened an exhibition of Orientalist painters, focusing on Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902). A journey to Morocco when he was a young man inspired him to paint exotic scenes of harems and desert soldiers.
José Villegas Cordero, The Slipper Merchant, 1872. Oil on canvas. 19 x 25.6 in. (48.2 x 65 cm)

The exhibition includes works by other Orientalists, including José Villegas Cordero (above), Henri Regnault, Mariano Fortuny, Delacroix, Georges Clairin, Jean-Paul Laurens, and.... 

.... a watercolor portrait by José Tapiró y Baró, who was featured on GurneyJourney last year.

Benjamin Constant, The Favorite of the Emir, (Washington, National Gallery of Art)
The sexual and cultural politics give contemporary art historians plenty to write about. The show is arranged thematically, with such topics as: "Colonial Diplomacy in Morocco" and "The Harem, Fantasies and Lies."

Leaving all that aside, the works have a lot to offer in purely painterly terms for artists attending the exhibition. Benjamin Constant's paintings are mostly large-scale works, often staged from a low eye level, with bold colors and patterns.

1902 article in Brush and Pencil about Benjamin Constant gives an example of how art historians a century ago were more attuned to subtleties of the picture-maker's art:
"His skill was devoid of trickery, which may not be truthfully said of the skill of such men as Fortuny and Madrazo of the Spanish school, Boldini of the Italian, or Makart of the Austrian. His methods were always 'legitimate,' but there were few subtleties of brush work which were not revealed to him. While he received most of his art instruction in the Atelier Cabanel at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, he was the pupil of Rembrandt more than of any other master. His painting of flesh had often the 'fatness' and firmness noticeable in most of the work of the great van Ryn. The peculiar technique obtained by dragging one tone of a color over another, or one color over another, is identical in many instances in the painting of both. The modern artist, however, seemed to strive to obtain brilliancy of effect through variety of color and through the contrast of varied textures more often than his seventeenth-century master. In this he was signally successful."

Museum website Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism: From Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in His Time January 31 to May 31, 2015
The Globe and Mail describes the show as a "spectacular must-see."

Catalog: Benjamin-Constant: Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism


Ken Laager said...

Thanks Jim, for sounding the call about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don't intend to miss it.

अर्जुन said...

The Leyendecker brothers were 2 of his students.

Steven K said...

The Montreal Museum continues to impress. I went to the Waterhouse show there several years ago which was beautiful curated and hung. This sounds like another "can't miss" exhibition.

Pierre Fontaine said...

I remember an Orientalism show at the Neuberger Museum at SUNY Purchase during the early 1980's. I had never been exposed to these paintings before that point and they left an enormous impression on me.

Everything about the paintings was larger than life. The colors, the atmosphere, the subject matter and the theatricality.

My best description was that it was like looking at a Technicolor movie painted directly onto a canvas. Everything was incredibly vivid, tangible and real.