Saturday, April 4, 2009

William Sartain in Algiers

Looking at the two paintings yesterday, I was drawn to Arabian Village showing the solitary figure on a roadway. Much like the Aqueduct it has a haunting feeling for me -- a glimpse at a undiscovered world. In The Aqueduct the woman is looking out into a vast open area. I see the figure in Arabian Village looking past me into the same vast openness. Algeria was where William Sartain had gone in November 1874 with his friend Charles Pearce who frequently wintered there. Wanting to be prepared for his Oriental experience, Sartain began studying Arabic on the boat from Marseilles. Once in Algiers he used those language skills to explore the Arab quarter leaving his room in a house near the Kasbah almost daily. In a letter, he wrote:

“I walked over the Arab quarter the other night, winding about all the intricate streets without fear. The effects are wonderfully fine, much more so than by daylight. Some of the cafes that appear by daylight mere black holes now appear long vaulted room with most mysterious effects in all the little angles and corners ... Part of these rainy days, I spend on my grammar ... I have had finally a genuine Arab pose all day for me, & pose very well too. He is going to bring another one whom he says is very good. So I feel after all that I am not going to be confined to interiors & street scenes only ... I bought myself a pair of Arab trousers. Also a woman’s gold thread scarf. ... I am going to get a cap. Some worn out jacket and vest, a belt -- also the toga -- burnous it is called. That will make a complete outfit ... There is one little word pronounced ph’ta which is the worst feature of the place. It means winter and also (the same word) rain. For ten days we've scarcely seen the sun and the sun is the life of everything here. My compagnon [Charles Pearce] was in despair out at Mustapha .. So he has come into town & is my neighbor -- using my success by employing the models I have found.”

Here is a view of a cafe from one of Sartain's walks. He wrote that he sat in Arab cafes absorbing everything Arabic, sketching, writing listening. He wrote of story-tellers who had rapt audiences. He continued to practice his Arabic and found that it got him closer to where “the curious things are.” The curious continued to fascinate him so much so that in a letter dated January 11, 1875 he wrote “I have had my beard and head shaved -- and have to go about with a silk handkerchief on. Among such a shaved population I thought it a favorable opportunity to invigorate.” In addition to learning the language and shaving, Sartain adopted Arab dress assimilating to the point that he witnessed at least one funeral and was invited to festivals. George Demirgian who spoke fluent Arabic joined Sartain and Pearce in Algiers. Sartain spent more and more time with Demirgian and in another letter Sartain wrote: “Demirgian & I have given up French cooking and get our meals at an Arab restaurant ... Some of the dishes are full of peppers some perfumed -- all are very good ...”

Sartain reluctantly left Algiers when his friends Pearce and Demirgian booked passage back to Paris. Even though he was no longer in the exotic land he had grown to love, he had his memories and sketches. He was able to use those to paint canvases later in Paris and New York. Today we have paintings such as The Aqueduct, Arabian Village and Algerian Cafe to travel back in time and experience a few of those exotic moments.

1 comment:

LaValle said...

Talking about Sartain's paintings, Bill commented that he really liked the Arabian Village. We can feel the bright sun that Sartain wrote was so essential to experience Algiers. Our eyes wandered up the roadway past the hut and man resting and then back across the buildings of the village. The yellows and browns are warming our chilled Portland bones as we wait for today's sun and the promise of warmer weather tomorrow.