John Frederick Lewis
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Head of a Spanish Girl Wearing a Mantilla, ca. 1838
Red and black chalks and Indian ink with watercolors and bodycolors on buff board
23.4 x 58.2
Presented by Prof. Luke Herrmann through the National Art Collections Fund (from the Bruce Ingram Collection), 2002
WA 2002.24

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as xenophobia gave way to colonialism, many artists were drawn to the exotic “other.” Termed “Orientalists” due to their penchant for depicting romantic scenes of the Near East, some, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres for example, chose to remain at home, transferring their visions of foreign splendors to the canvas. Others, however, used images to document real sights that they encountered while traveling in the countries of the East—Turkey, Palestine, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Spain. The British artist John Frederick Lewis (1805-1876) epitomized European Orientalism living in Cairo for ten years, adopting local dress and customs. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who chose to emphasize the foreign, exotic elements of Eastern life, Lewis frequently highlighted those aspects which were more familiar or domestic. Under Lewis’ pencil and brush, a harem scene became a genre scene.

Lewis’ domestication of the exotic is most clearly seen in his numerous sketches and watercolors made during a two-year tour of Spain between the years 1833 and 1834. A country often neglected by European travelers—frequented surreptitiously by a few French art dealers hoping to obtain forgotten works by the Italian old masters for a low price,[i] or used merely as a stop-over on the way to north Africa—Spain combined Moorish heritage with fiercely Christian beliefs. Lewis and his mentor, David Wilkie—to whom Lewis dedicated his book of lithographs Sketches of Spain and Spanish Character in 1836—are two of a handful of tourists who made Spain their primary destination in the first half of the nineteenth century, despite the growing interest in the country cited by F.G. Moon, the publisher of Sketches of Spain. On the book’s title page, Moon wrote: “the interest inseparable from everything relating to Spain, and the avidity with which every representation of its edifices and scenery has been sought for by the Public, induce the publisher to believe that a work like the Present...will be acceptable.”[ii]  In Lewis and Wilkie’s drawings of Spain we see hints of this Hispanophilia which would envelop Europe in the coming years. Although Lewis was, if nothing else, a keen observer of local custom, seeking to re-create on paper every regional flourish that he observed, Lewis lent to his subjects a grace, dignity, and familiarity that allowed them to transcend international boundaries.

In particular, Lewis made a habit of Christianizing Islamic spaces. The great palace of the Alhambra, conquered by Christians in 1491, is the subject of one of Lewis’ books of lithographs made after his travels. His sketches emphasize both the Moorish masonry and the Christian faith of the palace’s visitors. The figures in the Entrance to the Baños are clearly monks and in views of the exterior, Lewis has drawn cardinals sitting on the steps in their characteristic hats. Scholars of Orientalism have noted the tendency among many artists of the movement to look to foreign, Islamic figures for biblical authenticity, believing that their manner of dress and lifestyle closely mimicked those of biblical Israel. Malcom Warner writes that “from seeing the Near East as a timeless, albeit imperilled world, it was a short step to finding the living image of figures and incidents from the Bible in everyday sights.”[iii] Without directly depicting biblical events, Lewis often references biblical and religious figures in his drawings of lay and ecclesiastic individuals.  Although Lewis was, first and foremost, dedicated to depicting Spanish life in its own contemporary context,[iv] his repeated insertion of clearly Christian figures in clearly Muslim settings indicates an interest in Spanish religious history. This interest clearly manifests itself in Lewis’ many portrayals of Spanish women, who appear on his pages not as the odalisques of his later harem paintings but, instead, as secular Virgins.

Head of a Spanish Girl Wearing a Mantilla was drawn four years after Lewis’ return from Spain. She may well have been inspired by one of the lithographs in Sketches of Spain and Spanish Character, which depicts a Girl of Seville dressed and posed in a similar manner. The exquisite details of her face suggest that even though Lewis gives more compositional attention to her draperies, the girl and not her costume is the focus of the drawing. Lewis’ subject, with her head covered in a black lace veil, recalls paintings of the Virgin Mary by the Spanish masters of the seventeenth century—Velazquez, Zurbaran, and Murillo—who particularly influenced Wilkie[v] (and thus, we can assume, Lewis) and whose works Lewis may well have encountered over the course of his travels. Her face the epitome of loveliness, she is posed demurely with her eyes downcast. Unlike the odalisques of Oriental harems, she does not acknowledge the viewer’s gaze and is thus utterly untouchable. In this sense, she aligns herself with Murillo, Velazquez, and Zurbaran’s Virgins: a classic, Spanish beauty who, through her piety and purity, cannot be tainted by the touch of ordinary mortals. The mantilla, shown by Lewis frequently in a devotional context, worn by women either at prayer or en route to church in Sketches of Spain and Spanish Character, suggests that the girl’s context is similarly religious. Although her costume places her firmly in the Spanish present, her iconographical ties to Marian paintings suggest a link to the Christian past. Thus, despite her clearly Spanish origins, Lewis has domesticated her, stressing simultaneously what is foreign and what is familiar, by representing her with the characteristics of a universally recognizable and orthodox subject.

[i] Gary Tinterow and Genevieve Lacambre, Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003) pp. 15-31. 

[ii]John Frederick Lewis, Sketches of Spain and Spanish Character (London: F.G. Moon, 1836), frontispiece. 

[iii] Malcom Warner, “The Question of Faith: Orientalism, Christianity, and Islam,” The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse, The Allure of North Africa and the Near East, MaryAnne Stevens, ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984, p. 32.

[iv] Briony Llewellyn, “The Islamic Inspiration. John Frederick Lewis: Painter of Islamic Egypt” Influences in Victorian Art and Architecture Sarah Macready and F.H. Thompson, eds. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985) p. 122.

[v] David Wilkie: Painter of Everyday Life

Pamela Stewart

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