Max Friedrich Rabes (1868-1944)

Max Friedrich Rabes - City Gate Cairo

City Gate Cairo

Oil on canvas

46 x 32 in. (117 x 86 cm)

Signed, dated and inscribed Cairo 1903 (l.r.)

Max Friedrich Ferdinand Rabes, better known as Max Rabes, was one of the most celebrated German painters of his day. Not only did he accompany the German Emperor Wilhelm II on a visit to the Middle East but was later chosen to attend Prince Cyril of Bulgaria during his travels around America. Rabes also became a Professor of art at the University of Arts in Berlin as well as the University of Erlangen in Bulgaria; hence he sometimes referred to as Dr. Max Rabes. Perhaps best known as a master of Orientalist paintings, Rabes was also an accomplished portrait painter, a genre artist, landscape painter and illustrator. In addition he executed a number of murals and even turned his hand to sculpture. Born in Samter in Posen, Poland on the 17th April 1868, he trained at the Munich school of Art under the topographical and architectural painter and watercolourist Paul Graeb (1842-92).

From an early age Rabes, like Graeb, was eager to travel but tended to return every twenty years to Berlin. His painting expeditions took him from Germany, Italy and France to Finland and America. However his most important and frequent travels abroad were to Egypt and especially Cairo as well as Israel, Palestine, Turkey and other parts of the Middle East. At the age of seventeen Rabes went on a painting trip along the Mosel River, where he depicted a number of inspiring landscapes. While painting the scenic river, Rabes encountered Matthias Engel, who was so impressed with his talent that he invited him to his home at Traben-Trarbach, Mosel and became an early patron. In return Rabes offered his new friend a small watercolour of the Mosel which, greatly valued, has remained within his family’s collection and is now owned by Engel’s granddaughter.

As a reflection of how important Max Rabes was as an Orientalist painter, he and Wolfgang Christian Gentz (1862-1914), son of Karl Wilhelm Gentz (1822-1890), were specially chosen to accompany the German Emperor and Empress on a state visit to the Middle East in 1898. Also accompanying the party was the marine painter Professor Saltzman. The Empress, who was a very keen amateur photographer, also took along photographic apparatus so that she, like Rabes, could record the many places they visited. During their travels the imperial party and accompanying artists visited Palestine, Jerusalem, Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and as believed Cairo. The visit was widely reported in the press, including an English paper the Westminster Budget (14th October 1898) who noted that when entering Constantinople, the Emperor rode on a pure bred Arab stallion that had been given to him by the Sultan.

While visiting Constantinople Rabes depicted the great city against the Bosporus and captivated by the grandeur of the great city, he painted views of the Dolmabah Palace and other architectural splendours. He was equally struck by the buildings and inhabitants of Palestine and historic cities such as Jerusalem and Cairo. Further visits to Tunisia and Algeria followed, in particular to Biskra, which became a magnet for many artists owing to its lush and scenic beauty as well as the welcoming Arab hospitality. Interestingly the artist Étienne Dinet spent many months there at the same period. Over the years, Rabes captured many other facets of Middle Eastern and North African life, whether dancers in Tangiers, Odalisques, a Berber in a white turban or Bedouins in the desert. Of all the places he visited, Egypt appeared to have inspired him the most. Among such views are scenes along the Nile, the Pyramids, Giza, the Bay of Thebes as well as some glittering depictions of Alexandria and particularly Cairo, where he took temporary residence in order to paint the souks and everyday life of the Egyptian people.

Jerome Fine Art is very proud to have this painting in its collection. Not only is City Gate Cairo of supreme quality but it is one of the artist’s largest known Orientalist paintings. Above all it epitomises Rabes’s infinite artistic skill and understanding of Egyptian life and culture. Here he typically uses a vertical format and likewise frames the image within the monumental city gate. In the immediate foreground a water carrier leads the eye over numerous figures toward the vast gate. Through the archway one can see a traditional winding and crowded street in the heart of the historic city, which is caught in a blaze of colour set against a cloudless sky. Rabes cleverly reflects the bright blue sky in the glass of the ‘mashrabiyya’ bay windows while strong sunlight picks out the geometric Islamic tiles. Equally skilled is the way in which the soft red sandstone city gate contrasts with the surrounding deep shadows as well as the black abayas worn by the Cairo ladies. In turn they are interspersed with children in their lighter coloured robes, who add energy and vitality to this great masterpiece.

In addition to the exoticism of the Orient, Rabes travelled extensively around Europe. For instance he painted a number of scenes in Paris, notably in Versailles Park, where people play in the fountains or a young couple watch a firework display set against a starry sky. Likewise he travelled to Italy, where he executed a number of scenes of the Roman Campagna, in which the shapes of the distinctive cyprus and pine trees are silhouetted against an expansive sky. On other occasions Rabes travelled to Finland where, for instance, he depicted a sunny market scene at Abo which, apart from the classical buildings in the background, could easily be mistaken for a scene in the Middle East.

Rabes was as equally adept at recording architectural detail as he was at describing the human form. Among his repertoire are a number of nude studies, portraits as well as animated carnival scenes, a masked ball or Viennese society during the Belle Epoch. Such paintings, along with his Oriental views were the subject for his exhibited work. Among many venues his work hung at the Berlin Art Academy. In 1915 the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung (Germany’s closest equivalent of the Paris Salon) included a painting of Divine Service in the ruined Church in Lyck, October 18 1914, which a critic for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, (5th July 1915) applauded, noting that “Max Rabes has used wonderful shades of brown to depict the service and has produced a colourful, reverential and altogether artistic painting”. Elsewhere, in a review of art in Germany one American reporter from the Joplin Globe (24th August 1927) noted “An exhibition of more than 1000 works of art depicting phases of the world war was opened in the zoological garden, Berlin. All the artists exhibiting saw active service….among the most prominent are …the famous portraitist Prof Max Rabes.” Having spent so much of his life travelling the world, Rabes spent his later years in Vienna where he died on 25th July 1944.

Not only was Rabes an exceedingly versatile and accomplished artist, he was also much admired by the authorities. So subsequent to him being invited to accompany the German Emperor and Empress to the Middle East, Rabes was one of a party accompanying the young Prince Cyril of Bulgaria (brother of King Boris) to America in 1929. Arriving at the Port of New York, their trip took included a visit to New Palm Beach, Florida, the Grand Canyon and San Francisco, where Rabes depicted a number of views including some in China Town. When the American press mentioned Prince Cyril’s visit, Rabes was referred to as an “eminent artist of Charlottenburg, Germany”.

As a reflection of Rabes’s standing his work was and still is eagerly sought after. Among a number of public collections, his paintings can be found in the Museum für Stadtgeschichte, Dessau who own Entertainment on the Banks of the Nile. Likewise the Neue Pinakothek in Munich owns Sunday in Algiers, the Schwerin Museum Arabs Trading and the Museum of Weimar –an Arab scene, while the Museum für Post und Telekommunikation, Berlin owns The Letter Writer. In addition there are a number of his drawings and sketches in the Berlin State collection, while his murals can be found gracing the walls of the foyer of the Schauspielhaus in Breslau and at Schloss Hornow. A celebrity in his day, whose art was held in high regard and applauded by the critics all over Europe and America, Rabes continues to command attention. The Cairo City Gate illustrates his skills and observations to perfection: The water carrier in the foreground of this painting leads your vision, with the numerous figures illustrating the chaotic and everyday life of Cairo’s citizens. The vast gate frames, the crowded winding street in a blaze of colour reflecting the bright blue cloudless sky. Light reflecting off the Arabic architecture illustrating the geometric Islamic tiles, with the typical “mashrabiyya” bay windows of the traditional streets in the old historic city of Cairo. The red sandstone of the city gate gives a warm palette of colour, contrasting with the black abayas of the Cairo ladies interspersed with children in their lighter coloured robes, adding energy and vitality to this great masterpiece. The quality of the colour key in observing the movement and numerous figures of this painting -the largest orientalist painting ever recorded in Max Rabe’s career. Jerome Fine Art is very proud to have this painting in its collection.

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