STUDY OF A MAN IN OTTOMAN COSTUME
Signed l.l. WMuller 1839
Oil on panel
43.5 x 27 cm
With Thomas Agnews & Sons;
Anonymous Sale, Sotheby’s London, 10.11.1982, Lot 49;
Noortman & Brod, New York, 1983;
Anonymous Sale, Christie’s New York, 10.02.1998, Lot 160;
Matthew Rutenberg, New York
Noortman & Brod, 18th- and 19th- Century British Paintings, April - May 1983, New York; As above, June - July 1983, London
William James Müller (or Muller), "Bristol's most famous artist" , painted this vibrant panel of a gentleman in Ottoman costume in 1839, shortly after his three month sojourn to Egypt, where he travelled extensively from November 1838 to January of the following year. The Christie’s catalogue of 1998 suggested that Müller’s painting might depict the famous explorer and polyglot Sir Richard Burton, though this is highly unlikely as Burton did not obtain his celebrity until significantly later, in 1853.
There is also the purely hypothetical possibility of the present work being a study for a self-portrait in Egyptian costume: "Self-portraits and portraits of painters, so crucial to self-fashioning and self-promotion, were regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy and other venues. Both [David] Roberts and [Holman] Hunt used authentic costume in portraiture to imply their authority as Orientalist painters of landscape and biblical subjects respectively to a British audience, resulting from their extensive personal experience and observations..." . The practice of painting Europeans in Eastern costume was long-established even though Muller was among the first European artists to travel extensively in Egypt, and what little evidence of Muller's own facial features we have does not conspicuously rule out this possibility.
The gentleman, vibrantly attired in white, green, yellow and red, points downwards, or perhaps to the water source behind him. His left shoulder is framed by a lush vegetation of palm fronds, and in the middle distance a minaret is visible with mountains behind. The dusky setting accords with an entry, from 12 January 1839, in Müller’s Egyptian journal, with the artist writing that "twilights in Egypt have a peculiarity which I have never noticed in any other country, from the positive colour of the yellow and the dark blue-purple of the upper heavens" . The figure's garb also calls to mind Muller's observations on the natural suitability of the people of Egypt to being painted: "Figures dressed in black, with white turbans, are very beautiful and solemn in effect when in a landscape” .
The dazzling rapidity of execution for which Müller was famous is evident in the loose and spontaneous brushstrokes throughout the painting, as well as the lovely passages of impasto, most noticeably seen in the brilliant whites of the turban and robe. Muller’s extraordinary speed was related by his first biographer, who wrote that all "recognised Müller’s rare power – extraordinary rapidity and energy, and that he would generally commence and finish a small oil picture from life in two hours or a little more" .
Francis Greenacre has noted that "There is no evidence that Müller sketched in oil during any of his trips abroad" , so this study was likely painted upon his return from Egypt, either in Bristol or London, where he settled from the Autumn of 1839.
Upon his return, Müller used the rich and varied watercolours from his trip to procure him many commissions, "both from friends and dealers, and he commenced painting a series of pictures, principally small ones, of Eastern subjects" , of which should surely be included the present work. This study pre-dates Muller’s time at the ‘Clipstone Street Academy’ in London, despite its being comparatively accomplished for one of the artist's figure paintings, and so it is unlikely that the subject was modelled in full costume back in London ; rather it seems probable that this portrait derives from a sketch or watercolour by Muller, with the original setting likely adapted to create a more striking composition.
Müller was born in Bristol in 1812, the son of a Prussian from Danzig. His earliest pictures were primarily West Country landscapes, inspired by 17th-century artists such as Claude and Ruysdael. In 1833 he exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time, before touring France, Switzerland and Italy a year later. He undertook two trips to the Near and Middle East, the first the 1838-39 trip to Egypt by way of Athens, and the second in 1843-44 when he visited Lycia in south-west Anatolia. He died in Bristol in 1845, aged only 33, after an extraordinarily productive life and at a moment when his work was in great demand.
 Francis Greenacre, The Bristol School of Artists (exhib. cat.), Bristol (1973), p.225
 Christine Riding, in The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting (exhib. cat., ed. Nicholas Tromans), London (2008), p.55
 Nathaniel Solly, Memoir of the life of William James Müller, a native of Bristol, landscape and figure painter: with original letters and an account of his travels and of his principal works, London (1875), p.72.
 Quoted in Cyril Bunt, The Art and Life of William James Muller 1812-1845, Leigh-on-Sea (1st ed., 1948), p.37
 Solly, id., p.91
 Francis Greenacre, W.J. Muller (exhib. cat.), Bristol (1991), p.121
 Solly, id., p.86.
 Greenacre notes of the Clipstone Street Academy, "This artist's society had been formed...with the object of studying picturesque characters from life, in an attempt toreturn to the values of Dutch realism...As the society prospered and obtained better premises, books, and a wardrobe of costumes [our italics], it turned to professional models for the life classes. Lectures in anatomy were also given and for Muller, who was weak at figure-drawing, the evenings at the academy provided valuable additional experience" (Greenacre (1991), p.125)