Gustave Guillaumet
The Sahara

The Sahara also called The Desert
Gustave Guillaumet (1840-1887)
The Sahara also called The Desert
1867
Oil on canvas
H. 110; W. 200 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Le Sahara also called Le désert [The Sahara also called The Desert]


An eye-catcher at the Salon of 1868, this work by Guillaumet makes a break with Orientalist paintings of the time. Whereas many of his contemporaries gave a deliberately idealised or anecdotal picture of North Africa, here we have a poignant vision, which focuses on the essential. "Never has the infinite nature of the desert been painted in a simpler, more grandiose and more moving way," was Théophile Gautier's comment. The harshness of the landscape, the feeling of solitude and desolation are heightened by the division of the painting into wide horizontal bands, the implacable monotony broken only by the presence of men and animals in the distance. From the skeleton in the foreground, frozen in cool tones, we slide imperceptibly towards the glow surrounding the improbable caravan looming on the horizon.

With a remarkable economy of means, a subtle graduation of planes which mingles the dusty stretch of the vast plain with the hazy sky, Guillaumet manages to capture the quintessence of the desert. Particular about naturalistic details, he nonetheless manages to preserve the dreamy, timeless character that the public of the time associated with the Orient.


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