Antar, a pre-islamic heroic Arabic poem tells the extraordinary tale of Antar, son of the slave Zabibah and the emir Shaddād, a hero with tremendous strength. In love with the beautiful Ablah, he had to overcome various trials and complete a long journey across the Arabian Peninsula marked by combat before earning the title of a free man and finally being able to marry his beloved. Several years after their wedding, Antar was betrayed by his old enemies and killed. This book, translated in flowery language by Marcel Devic (1864), was published as an abridged version in 1898 in Paris by Edition d’Art, by Henri Piazza, in a luxury edition of 300 numbered copies with illustrations by Etienne Dinet. All of the drawings used for the publication as well as the corresponding engravings are housed in the Musée d'Orsay's graphic collection (265 works) thanks to the bequest of the collector Jules Maurice Audéoud. The unsigned decorative plates for the book were produced by Jeanne Dinet-Rollince, the artist's sister.
An Orientalist painter, Étienne Dinet (1861 - 1929) was particularly attached to Algeria, which he discovered in 1884. As of the following year, he divided his time between France and Algeria and lived for part of the year in Bou Sâada with his writer friend Sliman Ben Ibrahim, who introduced him to Arabic culture. In 1913, he converted to Islam and took the name of Nasreddine, before making the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1929. Alongside his work as a painter, Dinet illustrated several works - adaptations of Arabic legends - for Edition d’Art. It was he who initiated the illustration project for the saga of Antar. To prepare his drawings he travelled to Egypt, but the trip proved to be a disappointment and instead he drew his inspiration from Laghouat, a colonial village in Algeria on the edge of the Sahara, and Bou Saâda. His drawings attest to his knowledge of the desert and his observation of the inhabitants, while also reflecting an exotic vision of the Orient, combining reality and fantasy, that was consistent with the expectations of a western audience.