The Moorish Chief

THE MOORISH CHIEF is a 59 1/8 by 38 ½ painting by Eduard Charlemont. The 1878 work is one of the most popular paintings in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum’s gift shop sells more reproductions of The Moorish Chief than any other artwork in the museum.

A museum handbook explains:

“The exotically elusive yet strongly suggestive effect of this picture is demonstrated by the migration of its title. Shown at the Paris Salon in 1878 as The Guardian of the Seraglio, it was purchased by John G. Johnson in 1892 as The Alhambra Guard and published by him in 1914 as The Moorish Chief, the name that has stuck. Thus from its earliest days something about this image of a commanding black man, sword bared, who stands before a space modeled on the Alhambra in Spain, impelled both a clarification of his role and an elevation of his rank. Only part of Eduard Charlemont's career was given over to the popular genre of "Orientalist" painting, which represented subjects drawn from North Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps it was his Austrian background that spawned a kind of overripe hot-house style in his work that saved him from falling into the all-too-conventional drawing-room titillation that plagued Orientalism as a genre. Here his sense of staging is perfect, and his leading man a star.”

According to one writer, as Classic, more conservative forms of art gave way to the Orientalist and Romanticist movements in the second half of the 18th century, the imagination became the artist’s crucial authority. “The paintings were meant to appeal to peoples’ taste for the exotic rather than give an accurate depiction of the culture.” This taste had a major impact on Charlemont’s work and well as that of others.

We learn more about The Moorish Chief from the museum’s website: 



“Looking down at us, a tall man in white robes stands in the doorway of an impressive palace. People have marveled at this painting’s details and speculated about its subject for over a hundred years. But no one knows for sure who the man is because this is not a portrait—the artist used a costumed model standing in a Moorish palace. The painting is filled with many realistic details. Look at the man’s clothing: he is dressed in the kind of hooded cloak sometimes called a burnoose and typically worn by Arabs and Moors. On his head is a kaffiyeh (headdress) that almost completely covers a crimson cap underneath. Look for two richly damascened scabbards (decorated sword covers) stuck into his gold-embroidered belt. One scabbard is empty. What is he holding in his right hand? It’s a slender sword, the blade pointed downward like an extension of his muscular arm.



The background of this painting is based on the Alhambra, a famous fortress overlooking the city of Granada, Spain. The Alhambra was built during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by Moors, Muslims from northwestern Africa, who ruled large portions of Spain from 711 CE until 1492. Although Spain is part of the European continent, it is located just across the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa.



The painting probably gets its current title, The Moorish Chief, from the Moorish architecture in the background. But when it was first exhibited in 1878, it was called The Guardian of the Seraglio. Seraglio (“seh-ral-yo”) is the name for the special quarters in a Muslim residence where the women of the household were sheltered from strangers—so this title identified the man as guard of the women in the palace. However, after being purchased by Philadelphia collector John G. Johnson in 1892, the painting was listed as The Alhambra Guard. This title makes sense, since the palace in the background resembles the Alhambra.”




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