Alberto Pasini (1826-1899) was a traveling painter, one of many from Britain and France who accompanied diplomatic missions to the Middle East in the 19th century. He was born in Busseto, in the Italian province of Parma, where his father, an amateur painter, held office in the local government. After completing a course of study in lithography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Parma, Pasini published and illustrated an album on the architecture and history of the region. Income from the sale of the album was not sufficient for him to live on, so he set out for Paris, the mecca of the art world, in 1851. There he was influenced by Eugène Fromentin and the Barbizon landscape artists and made the acquaintance of the painter Théodore Chassériau. Chassériau introduced Pasini to Prosper Bourée, a diplomat who was about to leave on a trip to Persia (present-day Iran). Bourée invited Pasini and a writer, Comte Arthur de Gobineau, to join his delegation and document the people and places they encountered. This opportunity allowed Pasini to travel through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Yemen, and the Persian Gulf, recording details of costumes, architecture, and landscapes. When he returned to Paris, Pasini exhibited his finished paintings in annual competitions. In subsequent years, he made several more trips to the Middle East. Working conditions for a traveling painter were less than ideal—painting outdoors in the dusty streets could attract crowds of onlookers, some curious and some hostile. The intense heat made oil paints run, so painter-travelers often made watercolor studies or sketched in pencil or ink, turning their studies into oils at a later date under the controlled conditions of a Paris studio. While traveling, their task was to observe and record. One result of the many diplomatic, scientific, and military missions was a change in the European perspective, from a romantic view of the East as a barbaric, sexually licentious, and degenerate part of the world to an array of cultures to be admired and respected for their accomplishments. Political attitudes were slower to change; Europeans used images of North Africa and Asia to justify colonialism as civilizing and therefore beneficial, but as more and more African and Asian societies were courted by European nations to be their allies and trading partners, paintings of these regions did begin to take on a scientific objectivity. Painters paid less attention to the seductive pleasures of alien lifestyles, and more attention to accurate renderings of trading caravans, military units, and cultural treasures. Pasini excelled at this type of ethnographic and architectural reporting. Circassian Cavalry Awaiting Their Commanding Officer at the Door of a Byzantine Monument; Memory of the Orient (cover ) was painted in 1880. The name and location of the Byzantine monument are not specified. The composition may be an amalgam of architectural elements observed by Pasini in his travels. Judging from the crucifix under the left-hand arch and the two mosaic figures with haloes in the upper right-hand corner of the picture, the monument is a church, but if so it must have fallen into disuse, because a troop of cavalry is at ease in the forecourt, their horses resting in the shade of an interior aisle (see online magnifier). These particular cavalry were likely to have drawn the attention of European military observers, because the Circassians were renowned for their horsemanship and ferocity in battle. Most Circassians, who practiced Sunni Islam, settled in Turkey after being driven out of their native land in the Caucasus Mountains by Russian forces after the Russian-Circassian war of 1862. In the painting, a fully armed and mounted cavalryman sits astride his horse, while a dismounted trooper sits on a crate and feeds chunks of bread to the pigeons. Alberto Pasini (1826-1899), Circassian Cavalry Awaiting Their Commanding Officer at the Door of a Byzantine Monument; Memory of the Orient, 1880, Italian. Oil on canvas. 64.7 × 54.6 cm. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago (http://www.artic.edu/aic/), Chicago, Illinois; George F. Harding Collection, 2003.48. The stripes in the arch behind the troop of cavalry are voussoirs (wedges) of dark and light stone. The voussoirs in the center of the arch are blackened with soot that spreads upward in a narrow V pattern. A wider V pattern discolors the two arches to the left of the striped arch, and the wooden face of the lower of these two arches is burned black, suggesting that smoke from an interior fire poured out of the doors and up the exterior walls. Over the striped arch is a lattice-walled projection with gray domes. It is similar in construction to the mashrabiya of a private residence, where members of a Middle Eastern household could relax and hope for a cooling breeze while watching the activity in the street below. However, a mashrabiya would not join a residence to a church, as this projection appears to do, so its function, like the identity of the monument and the cause of the fire, is uncertain. This painting was made for an exhibition, and not for the archives of the French government, so there was no compelling need for accuracy or clarity. Perhaps, after so many years of documenting in clinical detail the customs and structures of foreign lands, Pasini indulged himself by painting a composition to intrigue a Parisian public ever enchanted by the mysterious East.
– American Medical Association
Published: Sep 14, 2011