Nathaniel Sichel was born in Mainz in 1843, and aged 16 he entered the Berlin Academy of Art to study under Julius Schrader (1815-1900). In 1862 he was accepted at the prestigious École des Beaux Arts in Paris where he was schooled in the great tradition of French academic painting. The 1860s was a fascinating and turbulent decade in art history and for the École des Beaux Arts in particular, whose primacy over of the French art world was challenged and to a large extent overturned.
Regardless of the developing struggle between Classical Realism and the nascent Impressionists, the ambition of most young painters was still to win Europe’s most prestigious art competition, the Prix de Rome and to establish a long and successful career by exhibiting annually at the Paris Salon. Nathaniel Sichel’s acceptance by the École des Beaux Arts marked him out as a young painter of enormous promise. After all, during the same period the applications of Paul Cezanne, Auguste Rodin and many other artists who would go on to find worldwide fame were all denied.
Sichel’s own bid to take the Prix de Rome in 1863 rested on his entry ‘Joseph Explains the Dreams of the Pharoah’ and its considerable success helped establish his reputation as a gifted young painters of romantic portraits and genre scenes. The painting is an early example of what would become a recurring theme of his work, the exotic allure of North Africa and the East.
Nathaniel Sichel first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865 and quickly gained a reputation as a masterful painter of the female figure. Importantly, he was also equally adept at conveying femininity and attitude. Even his slave girls, factotums and odalisques had nobility and presence. Unlike so many male painters of the female form who would soon follow, “Sichel’s Beauties” (as they became known) were outlined with genuine affection and admiration, each underlined by strong draughtsmanship. His skill also extended to architecture, décor, carpets, and costumes which were all given important supporting roles in his exotic portraiture.
In addition to his time in Paris, Sichel lived and worked in both Italy and North Africa before setting up his own atelier in Berlin where he would produce the majority of his most famous Orientalist portraits. At the 1886 Royal Academy of Arts festival, Sichel was awarded the Berlin Prize for his painting ‘An Egyptian Almeh’ singing to the Pharaoh.
The Berlin period, between 1880 and 1900 saw Sichel at the height of his powers, with his fine Orientalist portraits achieving both critical and commercial success. The latest advances in lithography also afforded the artist a very lucrative new revenue stream as the reproduction rights to his ‘beauties’ were in great demand with various advertisers and print manufacturers. The licensing rights were also purchased by the Royal Porcelain Factory, manufacturers of the famous Berlin Plaques.
Crucially – whether he was painting a Madonna or a slave girl, an odalisque or a Pagan princess – Nathaniel Sichel always treated his female subjects with equal respect, depicting each with their own dignified sensuality. In the 21st century that unfashionable approach feels refreshingly new. We currently have two exceptional portraits by Nathaniel Sichel available, including ‘A Montenegrin Girl’, one of the artist’s most famous and widely reproduced paintings. These can be viewed via the Browse Art page.
by Gavin Claxton © Academy Fine Paintings Ltd 2022