Jean-François PORTAELS (Vilvorde, 1818-Schaerbeek, 1895)

A Syrian Woman at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem

125 x 94 cm. (49 316 x 37 in.)
c. 1865. Oil on its original canvas. Signed and dated lower right: J. Portaels. Canvas verso inscribed upper right: à Bethlehem.

• Charles Sedelmeyer Sale, Vienna, 20 December 1872, lot 65 (Une Bretonne).
• Belgium, Private Collection.

1865, London, Ernest Gambart & Co. Gallery, Syrian Girl at the Church of the Holy Nativity, Bethlehem.
Clad in a shimmering dress pieced from various fabrics, a young woman is shown standing against a wall. Across her bosom is an unembroidered red taffeta square edged with yellow taffeta cut in a zigzag pattern, while her broad flared yellow silk sleeves are accentuated by a red panel between green and yellow stripes. On her head held by a chin strap, a keffieh is covered in off-white fabric hemmed with an embroidered frieze whose two fringed panels descend the length of her back. The outfit is completed by a necklace composed a double row of silver piastres on a cord which ends in a little cross. In one hand, she holds a rosary. The jewelry and embroidery of this traditional costume which young Christian women wore for the Festival of the Nativity in Bethlehem distinguish her as Syrian.

This undated work first appeared in the May 1865 exhibition by the Anglo-Belgian dealer Ernest Gambart (1814-1902) in London under the title of “Syrian Girl at the Church of the Holy Nativity, Bethlehem.” With A Girl from the Orient, it was one of the first two pictures by Portaels which the dealer exhibited in London, although as one of the artist’s most fervent admirers, he was already proudly exhibiting Portaels’ works at his Nice residence, the former Barla castle. In the Art Journal, London, the painting was described as “The Syrian Girl, a figure gaudy and even crude, in striped robes, bright in colours, yellow, red, orange, and green.” Enthusiastic American journalists welcomed it: “A fine picture by Portaels is that representing a Syrian Girl at the Church of the Holy Nativity, Bethlehem. It is a three-quarter length life-size study of a magnificent young woman of the gorgeous East. Nothing comparable to it could ever have been made out of the crinoline and “jockey-hats” that point the moral of our country and period.”

Born in 1818 in Vilvorde just outside Brussels, Jean-François Portaels was the main Orientalist in the 19th century Belgian School. After a rigorous education at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels and the studio of François-Joseph Navez, he went to Paris where he entered Paul Delaroche’s studio and the School of Fine Arts. He also discovered the Orientalist painting of Horace Vernet and Delacroix. At age 24, he won the Grand Prix de Rome at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. From Rome, where he arrived in June 1843, Portaels left in 1845 for the Middle East for almost a year. Leaving from Sicily, he went via Malta, Greece, Constantinople, Beirut where he was welcomed by Nicolas Bourré, the French Consul in Syria, before going to Damascus, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. In Egypt, which he visited again in 1847, he was commissioned to do portraits of the Vice-King Mehemed Ali.

Orientalism now became one of Portaels’ central themes and even his religious scenes had Orientalist coloring, settings, and features. His pictures were very successful in the Belgian and international salons in which he participated throughout a career punctuated by distinction, including becoming Director of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. The free studio which he opened in Brussels in 1858 attracted younger artists who formed the modern Belgian School. Portaels never ceased traveling throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

Portaels was dazzled by the atmosphere, colors, Biblical traditions of the Orient, as well as by its women, both for their grace and attire. Thus at Zahle in Syria, he wrote his parents on 12 December 1845, “The women are worthy of their ancient reputation for beauty. It really is the first place where I completely saw the national character, no European costume entered to interrupt the harmony.” The drawings in his daily notebooks were to constitute a repertory of models for future works. His enchantment was such that his desire to share his feelings never ceased.

Our picture evokes one of the most emotional moments from his first voyage: Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. With a few traveling companions, Portaels arrived in the town on 24 December 1845 to leave the next day. In his letter to his sister Marie dated the following January 1st, he describes the ceremony he attended in detail.

No studies related to this traditional Syrian costume have been found in his sketch books, but his interest in it can be seen in the fact it appears in several of his paintings. Thus, he clothed the figure of Rachel in his painting of Leah and Rachel of 1862 and again in the Young Oriental Woman with a Pearl Necklace. Portaels used the figure from his Syrian Woman at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem in another picture (lost) which is known from an old black and white photograph. This time, the young woman is accompanied by a second Christian woman who is clothed in a large light-colored robe with her head covered and face half hidden. Except for a few details, such as the ear ring and the wedding ring on the ring finger of her right hand, the young Syrian is identical to the one in the painting presented here.

Portalis sent several rosaries, such as the one held by the model, to his family and specified in a letter to one of his friends, the lawyer Camille Wins, that the rosaries from Palestine were made “from the olives in the Garden of Olives in Jerusalem.”

The Syrian Woman at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem is representative of Portaels’ “feminine fantasies” as his friend and biographer De Taeye termed it. As soon as he returned from Rome in 1847, the painter created a very personal recognizable pictorial type of idealized Orientalist woman with a dreamy expression and undeniable Romantic charm. Within a reduced suggestively Oriental setting, Portaels concentrated on accurately reproducing traditional regional costumes and jewelry in luxurious detail. His transcription of shimmering silks or more earthy fabrics in formal arrangements with chromatic harmonies gave added aesthetic pleasure to the seductiveness of his sitters.

Antoinette De Laet and Alain Jacobs

We would like to thank Mme. Antoinette De Laet and M. Alain Jacobs, specialists of the artist, for writing this entry and authenticating our work which will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist.

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