Wilhelm Karl Gentz (1822-1890)
“The Arab Princess”
Oil on Canvas
signed and dated lower right: W. Gentz. 1866
42 1/8″x38 5/8″
This sumptuous oil epitomises Gentz’s mastery as an artist. A painter of historical, religious and genre scenes he was also a leading exponent of nineteenth century Orientalism who made his name for his spirited scenes of life in the Middle East. His subjects ranged from Bedouin encampments in the desert to town scenes and ancient monuments populated by a variety of inhabitants, from exotic beauties to noble Sheiks. Gentz’s success was due to his talent, his knowledge of his subject as well as this extensive training under some of the leading masters of his day. Of German birth Karl Wilhelm Gentz (better known as Wilhelm Gentz) was born in Neuruppin on 9th December 1822, the second child of Johann Christian Gentz, a successful merchant and banker. Having studied at the Neuruppin high school he then enrolled at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-University, Berlin where he studied philosophy, aesthetics and art. By 1845 he had decided to pursue a career in painting so he attended the renowned studio of the portrait painter August von Klöeber after which Gentz spent nine months at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Art followed by a period in London and then Paris. It was in France’s capital that he entered the studio of Paul Delaroche then headed by Charles Gleyre, famed for his classical as well as Oriental paintings and whose pupils included Monet, Sisley and Renoir.
Eager to seek new inspirations, in 1847 Gentz visited Spain and Morocco returning to Paris in February 1848 where he executed a life-size figure of The Prodigal Son in the Desert. With the encouragement of his teachers as well as such publications as “The History of Ancient Art” by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, in 1850 Gentz made the first of a number of visits to the Middle East. He travelled via Marseilles and Malta to the Sinai and Egypt where as on other occasions he visited the pyramids. He also studied other ancient historical and architectural monuments including those on his return trip when stopping at Asia Minor, the Greek Archipelago, Constantinople and Vienna. By 1852 he was living in Berlin, where he executed some of his first Oriental oil paintings including A Slave Market. Despite gaining considerable success Gentz felt that he needed to perfect his style so he then went to Paris to work in the studio of Thomas Couture. The result of these additional studies resulted in a number of sumptuous works including large life sized religious pictures. However it was his Orientalist works that won him his greatest acclaim, including those shown in at the Berlin Academy and at the exhibitions of Munich and Vienna where he won a number of medals.
Amongst a number of celebrated pieces can be cited The arrival of the Crown Prince of Prussia in Jerusalem, 4th November 1869, painted in 1876 for which he had travelled to Jerusalem in 1873 on behalf of the Prussian Crown Prince. The work was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of Berlin, where it won a gold medal and is now housed at the Berlin National Gallery. Another oil depicting Prince Frederic in Jerusalem can be admired at the art gallery of Trieste while another showing the Anniversary of the Rabbi Isaac Barshischat at Algiers is housed at Leipzig Art Gallery. Other important collections to own his work include the Dahesh Museum of Art, New York who owns a large oil of 1872 showing The Snake Charmer portraying a common Orientalist theme famously treated by Jean-Léon-Gérôme in which an audience of Egyptian spectators transfixed by the snakes and their charmer is set against a detailed architectural background. In addition his work is also represented in the art gallery of Neuruppin as well as in some of its churches. As a further reflection of Gentz’s importance in 1881 the Emperor Wilhelm I appointed him a professor. In 1861 Gentz married Ida by whom he had a son Ismael (1862-1914) who followed his father’s profession as a painter, specialising in portraiture and genre subjects.
Owing to his familiarity with the Middle East and his knowledge of its customs and life in the desert encampments, Gentz was able to capture with great accuracy the many artefacts and customs of its people, of which the present work is a fine example. It shows a popular subject amongst Orientalist painters, namely a Bedouin encampment in the desert. At centre stage stands a Bedouin princess who turns to point toward an Arab warrior mounted upon his camel. The scene, which is imbued with expectation, invites the viewer to wonder if she is bidding the rider farewell or will soon be embracing him in her arms. The latter seems the most likely since the heroine’s servant, who stands to her left is busily preparing the warrior’s spears while behind rests a sabre and shield. Not only is the scene filled with drama but also strong contrasts of light and colour as well as an array of exotic delights from the princess’s gold threaded red dress to the bearded Sheik in all his wisdom.