The 1860s heralded the start of a fascinating and turbulent period in French (and therefore European) art history when the primacy of Academicism would be challenged and to a large extent overturned, and yet regardless of the emerging struggle between the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the Impressionists the ambition of most young artists 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 Salon des Artistes Français in Paris.
In 1862, Nathaniel Sichel, a young artist from the Munich Academy entered the École des Beaux Arts, and the considerable success that accompanied his own Prix de Rome entry ‘Joseph Explains the Dreams of the Pharoah’ helped establish his reputation as a gifted painter of romantic portraits and subject pictures. The picture is an early example of what would become a recurring theme of his work; the exotic allure of North Africa and the East, otherwise known as ‘Orientalism’.
Portraits of ‘Oriental’ exotica by Nathaniel Sichel
The European and American interest in all things ‘Oriental’ had been growing rapidly since 1800 but it was the paintings of Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), David Roberts (1796-1864), John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876), and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) (and subsequently Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) in the US) that really whetted the public’s appetite for Orientalism. From a modern perspective describing Spanish and North African subjects as ‘Oriental’ seems a bit loose to say the least but back then anywhere south of Rome or east of Venice was considered to be The Orient. On the whole – and not just because some modern commentators have a presentistic down on the whole notion of Orientalism – I prefer the term ‘Exotica’, surely a far more accurate title for what was essentially a Western fascination with, and fashion for, the mysterious characters and customs of foreign countries.
“The imagination of man is naturally sublime, delighted with whatever is remote and extraordinary.”
David Hume (1793)
Nathaniel Sichel first exhibited at the Salon in 1865 and quickly gained a reputation as a masterful painter of Oriental beauty. 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, and costumes which were all given important supporting roles in his exotic portraiture.
Nathaniel Sichel in his studio, circa 1880
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. During this ‘Berlin Period’ the latest advances in lithography also afforded Sichel 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 to individual paintings were purchased by numerous prestigious manufacturers including the Royal Porcelain Factory, creators 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.
by Gavin Claxton
© Academy Fine Paintings Ltd 2023
Images courtesy of Bonhams, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Twents Veilinghuis, Bridgeman Images.