Art Book of the Day : FROM THE BLACK SEA THROUGH PERSIA AND INDIA by Edwin Lord Weeks

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Less an art book than a travelogue/diary and historical exploration of an at the time still largely mysterious region, FROM THE BLACK SEA THROUGH PERSIA AND INDIA is an 1890s scholarly work (done during a time of an earlier Afghanistan War)on that area between the lands of Nubia and Asia that today we call the Middle East, by one of the preeminent artists of the 19th century, Edwin Lord Weeks.

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I first became aware of his glorious oil paintings when visiting the Richmond Art Museum a couple years back. His HOUR OF PRAYER painting in person, is simply massive in scale, and cannot truly be appreciated except in person (when you stand in front and beneath the painting, it’s like you could walk into it), carrying as it does not just the seminal strokes of a realist at the height of his powers, but the weight of history and a moment of time, and region, and culture (all of which is under threat of going away) preserved here; hauntingly captured.

For more on my first exposure to Edwin Lord Weeks go here!

I have since seen several other Edwin Lord Weeks paintings in person, Weeks was a very prolific artist, and another standout is INTERIOR OF THE MOSQUE AT CORDOVA.

While not as large as HOUR OF PRAYER it is a gorgeous painting at any size, unlike HOUR OF PRAYER where pictures on the web don’t do it justice. Part of what makes HOUR OF PRAYER the award winner that it was, is the play of yourself against its vast spaces. There is an alchemy that happens when you see that picture in person, that is not reproducible on your computer screen. INTERIOR OF THE MOSQUE AT CORDOVA, in contrast, is a far more repeatable image. What you see on the web or in a book, is a good approximation of what you’ll see in person.

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Along with Virgil Finlay, Robert Duncanson, and Zdzislaw Beksinski; Edwin Lord Weeks quickly became one of those IT artists for me. A massive artistic talent whose work was largely unknown, or under appreciated to this day, and definitely still largely unheralded/uncollected in a comprehensive tome. He became an artist I set out to find books by and about.

Today’s selection is one of those books.

“With the permission from the War Department to visit Central Asia came an urgent telegram from the American legation at St. Petersburg, advising us not to go on account of the cholera which, after devastating Meshed, had left Persia and invaded the Russian provinces. We were then leaving for Constantinople by the Camboge, and finding that she would not proceed to Batoum, by reason of quarantine we were again forced to change our route. This time we elected to follow the old caravan from Trebizond on the Black Sea, to Tabreez, through the mountains of Kurdistan, that country of indefinite boundaries.

In short, there was no other route left open to us; we must either turn back, or, setting our face forward, head straight for the Persian frontier, five hundred miles away, and we decided to go on.”
—-Lord Edwin Weeks, from the preface to FROM THE BLACK SEA THROUGH PERSIA AND INDIA.

Being in the public domain there are numerous variations of this work online. The quality is all a bit less than stellar, as largely it looks to be photocopies of photocopies, and the pencil drawings/sketches that accompanies the words, all a bit muted… still there is enough there to get the brilliance, and you can flip to any page, read a paragraph and be entranced by Weeks’ evident love and romance for the region.

So until a proper tome dedicated to Lord Edwin Weeks is done, for reasons both historical and cultural this 462 page book, to any fan of the work of Weeks, is a must own.

Get your copy here:

From the Black Sea through Persia and India

Nineteenth-Century American Painting: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection

And American Gallery offers a great look at Weeks’ paintings here.


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Artist of the day: Edwin Lord Weeks and The Hour of Prayer

I had the great pleasure to see an Edwin Lord Weeks painting in person recently, and in a museum filled with artwork of the ages from Innes to Tanner to Sargent to Parrish, the Weeks painting remained the highlight. His paintings are oft of incredible scale, particularly the one I saw that took him a year to finish. Just a glorious painting.

I would be roaming the museum, in other rooms of that section, and the painting was positioned so that, even from a distance, it commanded attention. There are no decent pictures of it online, and even the best picture I’ve found, can’t really reproduce colors or brightness (typically too dark, poor contrast in the images) or the brush strokes or the gravity of looking up and into this painting of oil on canvas, that has seen the fall and rise of two different centuries.

The painting does not just capture a moment of culture and history that is quickly being westernized and bombed away, the painting is culture and history.

The painting I am describing, it is called THE HOUR OF PRAYER. Its full title is ‘The Hour of Prayer at Muti-Mushid (Pearl Mosque), Agra’,

I am quite enamored of it, one of the best paintings from Edward Lord Weeks, one of the preeminent American artists of the Moorish and the Oriental.

Here’s a bit of the history on the painting, with some specifics regarding dates courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Edwin Lord Weeks, born 1849, began work on what would become his most celebrated painting sometime in 1888, at the modest age of 39. He would begin, early in 1888, tossing oils on a canvas that, measured the insane size of 118 1/2″long by 79″ high. It was a monstrous and daunting empty space to have to fill, even by one of the acclaimed painters of his day. A year later in 1889, he would put his last bit of oil in place, and the endless painting, would be ended.

Edwin Lord Weeks, now 40, after a year of fighting oil and canvass and God and man, would step back from the painting that many thought would be his folly, and found it good.

The world agreed. As it was a painting that, unlike many works that meet with derision or indifference upon first viewing, was from the first… acclaimed.

THE HOUR OF PRAYER, from the first its brilliance by all who viewed it… could not be denied.

I quote from its auction description in May of 2007:


“The Hour of Prayer at Muti-Mushid (Pearl Mosque), Agra, is one of five monumental scenes of India which secured [Edwin Lord Weeks] reputation as America’s most celebrated Orientalist painter of the late nineteenth century. Based upon the artist’s second of three extended trips to India, in 1886-1887, ‘The Hour of Prayer at Muti-Mushid (Pearl Mosque), Agra’ won a medal at the 1889 Paris Salon where it was displayed to enviable advantage. Six years later, Weeks chose this expansive sun-drenched view of the inner courtyard of the Pearl Mosque to represent him in the colossal “Empire of India” exhibition in London in 1895, where his achievement as the premier painter of Indian scenes was lavishly acknowledged with a medal of distinction, a monetary prize, and a special display of 78 of his works. From the time it was sold by the artist’s widow in 1905, the Salon-scale Hour of Prayer at Muti-Mushid has had only two owners-the Brooklyn Museum of Art (1905-1947), which deaccessioned it at a time when academic painting had fallen sharply out of fashion, and a private American collection (1947-present).”

In May of 2007 The painting THE HOUR OF PRAYER, went up for sale for only the third time in the 114 years of its existence, selling for the very healthy sum of $850,000 (including buyer’s premium,taxes and fees). Less than a couple hundred thousand shy of a million.

The painting can currently be viewed in all its glory at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. And it is a trip worth making if just to see that painting in person. Because failing that, owning it would seem to be a possibility for only the wealthy few, and even then you are talking about, if history be our guide, a wait of decades before it next goes up for auction.

And I’d be willing to wager that in a future world where so much precious art, particularly of or depicting the Moorish influence has been lost, the painting will sell for astronomically more than its 2007 sale price.

I do wish however the Richmond Museum would put the painting behind glass. As much as I adored being able to see the painting at close proximity, it is a painting of some import and fragility, I noticed some damaged areas on the massive painting, and I, as a security minded person, would really feel better if it was behind glare-free and acid-free glass.

But that to the side, onto the final words on the painting.

in summation Edward Lord Weeks’ THE HOUR OF PRAYER is one of the most striking paintings I’ve seen in person in years, I’d think I’d have to go back to my first time seeing a Caravaggio or Rubens to get that same sense of… captivation. It is something of a reminder to those of us who are sometimes made unfeeling in this world of metal, and bombs, and death and indifference, that if we can not be cured by art, we can at least be… refreshed by it.

I’ll leave you with a few other striking Weeks images:

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And for books about and by Edwin Lord Weeks, see the following:
The Art of Edwin Lord Weeks (1849-1903)

From The Black Sea Through Persia And India…

And for more on the Virginia museum of Fine Art go here!