Georges Washington (1827-1901)

Georges Washington (1827-1901)

An Arab Cavalry Skirmish

Oil on canvas

17.5×23.8in (44.5 cm x 60.5 cm)

Signed G. Washington (lower left)

Acclaimed for his vibrant and masterful paintings of Arab cavaliers and huntsmen, Georges Washington’s Middle Eastern views are still greatly appreciated by today’s connoisseurs of the European Orientalist School. He gained considerable repute for both his exhibited and privately commissioned works and as such can be considered among one of France’s most successful nineteenth century Orientalist painters. The majority of the artist’s works, both in oil and watercolour, show animated scenes often set in Algeria, including the Sahara, Constantine, El Kantara and Kabylia in addition to others set in Morocco or Turkey. So great was his repute that many of his works are now to be found amongst a number of public collections including Cavaliers Arabes (Arabian Cavaliers) and Portrait de Charles X (Portrait of Charles X) at the Musée de Dunkerque; Nomades dans le Sahara en Hiver (Nomads in the Sahara in Winter) at the Musée de Lille; Chevaux Arabes à l’Abreuvoir (Arab Horses at the Drinking Trough) at Limoges; Fantasia Arabe (Arabian Fantasy) at the Musée Paul-Valéry at Sète; Cavaliers Kabyles à l’Abreuvoir (Kabylian Cavaliers at the Drinking Trough) in the Musée des Beaux Art d’Angers as well as Souvenir de Kabylie (Souvenir of Kabylia) at the Musée d’Annecy.

The present work, showing a powerful view of an Arab cavalry skirmish in the desert set against a mountainous backdrop is described in bright, naturalistic and fluid brush strokes that reflect the exotic quality and dynamism of the subject itself. This superb work not only exemplifies Washington’s expertise as an equestrian painter but also his knowledge and understanding of Arab customs and costumes which he witnessed firsthand during one of his many travels to the Middle East. Previously owned by the Art, Design and Architecture Museum, University of California at Santa Barbara, U.S.A, this unique oil painting was recently deaccessioned by the museum along with a large number of other European works that included Old Masters, other nineteenth century paintings as well as Art Deco artefacts.

Born in Marseille in September 1827, the artist was born out of wedlock and though he later stated on his marriage license of 1859 that his parents’ names were unknown, his mother is elsewhere recorded as Marie Besse. She however did not officially acknowledge him until 1868, by which time the forty one year old painter had established considerable artistic repute and had adopted the pseudonym Georges Washington, after America’s first President. Like most aspiring artists, the young Georges Washington moved to Paris, where he trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts under François-Edouard Picot (1786-1868). Best known for his animated historical and battle scenes, Picot was to be the first major influence upon Washington’s future artistic career, instilling upon him a strong grounding in fine draughtsmanship and sound composition, which Washington combined with his own innate understanding for dramatic action. The artist’s exotic style was also indebted to his study and appreciation of the Romantic painters, especially Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), whose Orientalists views were described with similarly brilliant and fluid oils. At the same time Washington’s art conveys a similar feeling to the work of Eugène Fromentin (1820-76) who often painted naturalistic Middle Eastern scenes of rural and nomadic life with groups of mounted horsemen either under the shade of leafy trees or as here in the open countryside. No doubt Washington’s love of the Middle East and its customs was further enhanced and encouraged by his father-in-law, the military and Orientalist painter Henri-Félix-Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815-1884), whose daughter Anne-Léonie Philippoteaux married Washington in Paris on 6th August 1859.

Not long after finishing his training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Washington embarked on the first of a number of trips to Algeria and based on close observation of its inhabitants, their dress and customs in 1857 he made his Paris debut at the Salon des Artistes Français with a view of nomads titled Plaine du Hoiina (Sahara Algérien). From then up until 1901 Washington continued to be a popular exhibitor at the Salon; one of his first works shown there to gain critical acclaim was Nomades dans le Sahara en Hiver, (exhibited 1861; subsequently acquired by the Musée de Lille), while further success came when in 1893 he showed Le Combat and Cavaliers Arabes dans le Désert des Sables, for which he was awarded a third class medal. In addition to Paris, Washington also showed his work in Moscow in 1881 and was later posthumously honoured when four of his paintings were included in the Exposition Coloniale de Marseille in 1906.

Following two commissions from a Belgian company, in 1879 the artist travelled to Morocco and then subsequently visited Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, which like his travels around Algeria were to inspire his varied subjects including battle scenes and cavalry skirmishes, as we see here. Other of his paintings depict prisoners being led by armed escorts in contrast to more serene views of nomads resting beside an oasis or horses and riders enjoying a respite along the Algerian coast. On rare occasions Washington also depicted scenes of his homeland, including two equestrian views, Derby de Chantillyn en 1863 (shown at the Salon in 1864) as well as Steeple-chase à Vincennes (shown at the Salon in 1865). His travels also took him to America, when he sailed first class from Le Havre and arrived at New York on 15th April 1886 for the unveiling in Philadelphia of a cyclorama (a monumental 360° panoramic view) of the Battle of Gettysburg by his brother-in-law Paul-Dominique Philippoteaux (1846-1923). The latter had already painted two earlier versions, for which he was known to have been was assisted by five other artists including Philippoteaux’s father as well as Georges Washington himself.

On the death of our artist’s father-in-law Henri-Félix-Emmanuel Philippoteaux in 1884, Georges Washington and his wife Anne-Léonie were left a modest apartment in Montmartre known as the Château des Brouillards, which was later occupied by the Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. In 1884 Washington also sold thirty of his paintings at the Drouot Paris auction house and using the proceeds as well as a legacy left to him by his father-in-law, he and his wife embarked on a farming enterprise in Brittany. This however proved a financial disaster. He therefore revisited America in 1888 to undertake a commission for further panoramas before returning to Montmartre. Following the death of his wife he retired to live with his daughter and son-in-law at Douarnenez on the Brittany coast, where he died shortly after on 19th November 1901. His death however did not curtail enthusiasm for his work which continues to be much admired for its integrity, dynamism and sheer brilliance.

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