|Click Image to Enlarge|
Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
|An Armenian, Standing, Turned Somewhat to the Left, ca. 1819-1824
Graphite with watercolor on white paper
31.9 x 17.7 cm
In 1819, Louis Dupré (1789-1837) took a six-month tour of Greece and Turkey, accompanied by three affluent English gentlemen, Misters Hyett, Vivian, and Hay. Upon arriving in Constantinople his companions left quickly, frightened by an outbreak of the plague. Dupré, however, remained and completed a series of watercolors. Nevertheless, the Englishmen funded Dupré’s entire trip in exchange for these drawings, of which the artist also made duplicates that he exhibited at the Salon of 1824.[i] Based on these drawings, Dupré also created lithographs, published serially in Paris from 1825 to 1834 under the title Voyage à Athènes et à Constantinople. [ii] It is uncertain whether An Armenian, Standing, Turned Somewhat to the Left is one of the originals or a later duplicate.
Dupré made this drawing during the three months he was in Constantinople. In that time, he was introduced to several rich Armeniansone of whom probably posed for this pictureby his host, M. Jouannin, a dragoman of the French Embassy.[iii] Dupré was particularly interested in the costume, not only of the Armenian whom he drew, but also of everybody else he met throughout the six months. Almost every time that he met someone new, Dupré took great pains to describe just what type of fabric, in what color, they were wearing. It is thus no surprise that the lithographs in his book seem more akin to studies of costume rather than portraits. Nor is this drawing any different. Dupré’s subject seems overwhelmed by what he wears; only his head and feet are visible beneath his monumental robes, which hide even his hands. Most of Dupré’s attention, in fact, is focused on the clothing rather than the figure of the Armenian. Individual brushstrokes detail the fine fur of the hat, its richness echoed and enhanced by the fur scarf the Armenian wears around his neck. Fine lines of red, yellow, and blue, placed closely together, mimic the striped material of the costume, the color of which is enhanced by the bright red trousers that scarcely reveal themselves underneath the robes, as well as the Armenian’s yellow shoes.
What is most striking about this drawing is what is missing. The Armenian stands before a white background that is completely empty except for a faint horizon line and the shadow he casts. In this respect, it recalls Girodet’s Portrait of an Indian (Montargis, Musée Girodet, c. 1807), which like Dupré’s drawing, depicts a richly clothed figure in front of an almost empty background, detailed only by the diminutive mountain and palm tree in the lower right-hand corner. For Girodet, the absence of a background is particularly remarkable, as he usually accentuated the character of his sitters in placing them in a specific setting, as in his portrait of C[itizen] Jean-Baptiste Belley, Ex-Representative of the Colonies (Versailles, Musée Nationale du Château, 1797).[iv] However, it is precisely this absence of background that serves to accentuate the “Asiatic sumptuousness” of the Indian’s dress, an effect underlined by the cropping of the figure, which places the viewer particularly close to the subject.[v]
Thus, as with Girodet’s Portrait of an Indian, the lack of a specific background further emphasizes the rich costume of the Armenian, which Dupré has already gone at length to richly portray[vi]. It is also interesting to note the similar absence of background in two works that depict the object of Orientalist fascination as a type (“an Indian,” “an Armenian”), rather than a specific person.[vii] This reduction to a type is especially evident with Dupré, in which he equally seems to evoke images of nineteenth-century fashion plates, which often show a figure dressed in rich clothes in front of a white background. The absence of background in Dupré’s drawing is all the more striking in comparison to the lithograph version in Voyage à Athènes et à Constantinople (plate XXXII). While the Armenian has the same pose, the same clothes, this time, Dupré has inserted an image of the Hagia Sofia on the left, and an aloe on the right, separated from the Armenian by the very short wall in front of which he stands. Despite the addition of a specific background however, Dupré’s main interest remains the costume, for the presence of the Armenian greatly overpowers that of either the building or the plant, which have both been rendered in an almost miniscule fashion.
[i] Louis Dupré, Voyage à Athènes et à Constantinople ou Collection de portraits, de vues, et de costumes grecs et ottomans (Paris: Dondey-Dupré, 1825), 2.
[ii] Jon Whiteley, The French School, Vol. VII in Catalogue of the Collection of Drawings in the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 349.
[iv] French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution (Paris: Grand Palais, 1974), 453.
[v] In a 1797 letter to Talleyrand, Girodet proposed a theme for picture that would highlight the “opposition and the contrast between Asiatic sumptuousness and the dignity of the Constitutional costume.” Girodet to Talleyrand, 28 July 1797. Quoted in George Levitine, Girodet-Trioson: An Iconographical Study (New York: Garland Publishing, 1978), 278a
[vi] Both Girodet and Dupré were students of Jacques-Louis David, and it is likely that Dupré would have encountered, or at least heard of Girodet’s work while studying with David.
[vii] This, of course, raises the issue of the characteristic vagueness of exoticism, which posits the subject as inhabiting some place, some time, that is not here.