His oils of the Middle East and India are imposing works, often monumental in sweep, filled with incident, and so well painted that you can almost feel the skin-searing sun. So why is a great artist like Edwin Lord Weeks (1849-1903), an American Orientalist (or as he preferred, "colorist") neglected?
Weeks is not totally forgotten. A piece shows up in group exhibitions from time to time, especially abroad. But now there's a loan show of his oils, "Edwin Lord Weeks: Visions of India," at Vance Jordan Fine Art. It's the perfect time to reassess this talented but underappreciated artist. This is, after all, the first major exhibition devoted solely to Weeks' oils since his death, almost 100 years ago.
Edwin Lord Weeks, a Boston-born ex-pat who lived in Paris when not roaming, is commonly lumped with other English or French Victorian Age painters. Perhaps Americans have lost track of him.
Many Orientalists concentrate more on female flesh in exotic locales with lots of technique and very little imagination. They don't really merit another look. And besides, many of their canvases are little more than excuses to visually paw some female flesh, a tad embarrassing after Feminism.
But Edwin Lord Weeks is different. He loved the drama of daily life as it was played out on the streets and around the desert bazaars of the Middle East and India. He employed his masterful academic technique, not without occasional Impressionist touches, to record interactions among men, women, children, animals, rich and poor alike.
When Weeks does show nude females, as in The Temple and Tank of Walkeshwar at Bombay (ca. 1884), they appear as part of the social scene. Typically, the painting contains many individual vignettes, yet it all coheres into a satisfying whole. The many bodies in a variety of poses recall Renaissance works in which an artist flaunts his virtuosity in this manner.
Each Weeks canvas is an opera in three-acts, packed with social and/or personal rituals, both sacred and profane. Weeks organizes his huge casts of characters against accurately painted architectural backdrops. Many born in India have come into the gallery, I was told, and immediately remarked about how accurately specific buildings were portrayed. His Gate of the Fortress at Agra, India with its sleeping warriors and lively monkey is one example. In his Craftsman Selling Cases by a Teak-Wood Building, Ahmedabad (ca. 1885), the unusual and carefully painted teak-wood balcony native to this area is balanced by the even showier reds in the garments of the bargaining men below.
Weeks' uncanny ability to convey blazing sunlight, his bold yet balanced use of color, the seemingly uncalculated complex compositions, the scrupulously recorded architecture and the numerous daily comings and goings mesh into fascinating paintings. He could integrate Impressionist dashes of color and loose brushwork when the occasion demanded, too, as in his Wedding Procession, Jodhpur.
Similarly, the swirl of birds in Feeding the Sacred Pigeons, Jaipur (ca. 1894) are really just flecks of gray, white and black, but they make us believe in the reality of the scene, with two red-clad figures walking up a temple staircase in the distance. The two men seated in the foreground, possibly a barber and his customer, are a sample of the multifarious bits of life that Weeks includes in his canvases.
Few Americans followed Weeks' three bold treks into remote areas of India as they were opening up in the 1880s and early 1890s. On each of his first two trips, one of his companions died. On the last, Weeks caught "the fevers" that eventually killed him when he was only in his early 50s.
All 29 of Weeks' oils in the show plus others are illustrated in color in a catalogue that the gallery has produced ($50, soft cover). Also inside is a well-researched and enjoyably written, illustrated essay by Dr. Ulrich W. Hiesinger, the most extensive essay yet devoted to Edwin Lord Weeks.
If you have a yen to own one of Weeks' stunning genre paintings, there are several to choose from in the show, both from the gallery's stock and from several private collections. The 64 1/4 x 45 inch Temple and Tank of Walkeshwar at Bombay is available for $585,000, for example, while the smaller Wedding Procession, Jodhpur (20 1/8 x 30 inches) can be had for $95,000 or Feeding the Sacred Pigeons, Jaipur (18 1/2 x 22 inches) for $175,000.
The content of Weeks' studio was auctioned off in 1903. There was a small show of his work at the University of New Hampshire in 1976 and nothing since, except for the current exhibition.
There were two other interesting American Orientalists besides Weeks: Frederick Bridgman, a friend of Weeks, and painter/designer Lockwood de Forest, who established a workshop in India to export the woodwork of Ahmedabad. A show on these artists -- with the spotlight on Weeks -- seems long overdue.
The exhibition remains on view through Dec. 12, 2002, at Vance Jordan Fine Art, 958 Madison Avenue in New York City.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.