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Title Drying Clothes
Collection Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums
Artist Constant, Jean Joseph Benjamin (French painter, 1845-1902)
Date Earliest possibly about 1872
Date Latest possibly about 1892
Signed yes
Description An Eastern woman is drying clothes on a roof terrace. She is set against the calm sea in the background, with the sun half-disappeared beyond the horizon. Behind the woman, the rooftops of similar dwellings are visible. Despite the more humble subject matter of Drying Clothes, Constant's style, a conciliation between classicism and restrained exuberance of romantic colour, remains. Soft, warm tones and harmony of line are characteristic of his work of this period. Contrasting orange and blue give a vibrancy to the colour scheme and the pure light of the Orient is rendered with conviction.
Current Accession Number ABDAG003252
Former Accession Number 10.1.7
Inscription front lr 'Benj. Constant'
Subject everyday life; figure; marine
Measurements 50.8 x 40.5 cm cm (estimate)
Material oil on panel
Acquisition Details Given by Sir James Murray 1910.
Publications Aberdeen Art Gallery and Japan Association of Art Museums,A Scottish Collection - Treaures from Aberdeen Art Gallery, Tokyo, 2000. pp. 108-109, cat. no. 35.

In 1865 Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant, who at first studied in Toulouse, won the Prix-du-Concours that enabled him to enrol at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under the direction of Alexandre Cabanel. Constant became a leading painter of orientalist themes, achieving success at the Paris Salons and acclaim from the French public. In 1883 he replaced Cabanel at the École and later became an instructor at the Académie Julian. He sought to instil in his students the mastery of technique of the French Academy, and today is chiefly remembered, somewhat unfairly, for his outspoken opposition to the Impressionists.

Orientalism, or the life of the Muslim world of North Africa, was a vast and exotic subject that was very popular in France throughout the nineteenth century. First hand experience of these countries was made possible to French and British artists by improvements in travel and the colonisation of North Africa. Constant, like many French artists, initially was attached to a diplomatic mission for his visit to Morocco. In 1872 he accompanied the French Ambassador, Charles Tissot, to the court of the Moroccan Sultan. The painter was fascinated by the azure skies, colourful costumes and exotic beauty of the Moroccan people and what he had intended to be a one month stay turned into a sojourn of two years. The heat and local curiosity made on the spot painting in North Africa impracticable for artists and, moreover, it was in accordance with academic training to execute oil paintings in the studio. Constant was no exception to this and the memories of his trip, reinforced by a collection of Islamic artefacts that he housed in his studio, provided him with subject matter for the next decade.

A series of sumptuous oriental scenes in the tradition of Regnault and Delacroix followed. In line with other orientalist artists of the time, languid scenes of Eastern women in their quarters (the harem) and dramatic quasi-historical subjects were the mainstay of Constant's output. Drying Clothes (c. 1880) is unusual in the artist's oeuvre, in that it depicts an everyday scene of domestic work, the subject of which is probably a servant, or at least a lowly woman. Roof terraces and patios could be part of the women's quarters and were still considered sanctuaries in which they were safe from observation. In this context of local custom, it is interesting that Constant has the laundress engaging with the viewer with such a direct gaze. Jules Breton uses a similar pose in The Gleaner of 1875 (also Aberdeen Art Gallery). The straightforward gaze may be a reflection of changing social perceptions in this period, in which peasants were portrayed as proud and honest folk. In common with many of the orientalist painters, Constant did not seek to depict an accurate account of Muslim life. It was a beautiful and idyllic vision, in which the imagination of the artist played a part.

Rights Owner Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums
Author Jennifer Melville



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