Edwin Lord Weeks was one of the most prominent American Orientalist painters of his time. Weeks undertook extensive periodic journeys throughout North Africa, Persia and India in order to document the subject matter, architectural details, and backgrounds for his compositions. According to his personal letters Weeks traveled to India in 1883 where he painted scenes from Mathura, Benaras, Agra, Delhi, Amritsar, Bombay, and as in our example in Ahmedabad. It was these paintings of Indian subjects that established Weeks' reputation as a Salon medalist. Such sensitive renderings of Indian life brought him certain celebrity in France and in the United States. This exotic view demonstrates a distinct mastery of artistic details, local architectural elements, and the human figure.
Edwin Lord Weeks was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1849, the son of well-to-do tea and spice merchants in Newton, Massachusetts. The younger Weeks was thus in a position to indulge his personal love for travel and for artistic pursuits. He traveled to the Florida Keys with the express purpose of drawing and then journeyed further on to South America. His earliest works date from 1867. In 1870 he opened a studio in his hometown of Newton and in the same year made his first trip to Egypt, to the Holy Land, and then to Damascus, Syria. He ventured on to Morocco in North Africa before returning home where he exhibited his paintings at the Boston Art Club. In 1874 he returned to Paris where he studied under Léon Bonnat at the École des Beaux-Arts and was acquainted with the great Academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. The artist traveled extensively throughout Northern Africa and the Near East, chronicling his journeys in letters and in drawings. His paintings of India, Morocco, and Persia brought him great renown and celebrity back in France and in the Americas. He continued to paint right up to his untimely death in 1903 from an illness that he contracted in India.
Edwin Lord Weeks’ depiction of mosques in India hold a significant place in the body of his work and contributed to his fame in America at the end of his life. The Pearl Mosque, Agra is an important and early version leading up to his Gold Medal, Paris Salon exhibition piece of 1889 titled The Hour of Prayer at the Pearl Mosque, Agra. It was in this series of works that Weeks experimented with what many art historians such as William Gerdts term “the glare aesthetic”. The Pearl Mosque held a lure for Weeks in that it dazzled the eye like a blanket of snow does in intense sunlight and he felt compelled to capture this effect on canvas. He initially worked in situ on this canvas to record the basic details of the composition, painting in sunlight which gives the canvas added intensity. Weeks also used photography to reference later in the studio. Weeks was a student of Léon Bonnat who differed from Gérôme in his being a Realist and believing in a fidelity to visual nature. As is evident in this canvas, Weeks’ style was a combination of sharp detail and delineation coupled with painterly and suggestive strokes. The composition is also avant-garde for 1886 to 1887 which is when he started this canvas, in that it is cropped and the figures are skewed to one side of the canvas. This work is meant to be a complete composition on its own yet an initial working toward the major culminating work he exhibits in 1889.
Ellen Morris documents the realization of this work from its inception to its relationship to the final major work of this series:
"The architectural backdrop of “The Pearl Mosque, Agra” was executed in situ during Weeks’ 1886 – 1887 expedition to India. The painting was fully finished-out, circa 1893 following Weeks’ return to Paris, adding the figures, embellishing the details, adjusting the subtle tonalities of the mosque interior, tank and forecourt, and completing the sky and glazes. In his travel narrative, “From the Black Sea Through Persia and India” Weeks published his emotional response to the Pearl Mosque, built during the reign of Shah Jahan, who also built the Taj Mahal.”….”The Pearl Mosque, Agra” is highly significant in Weeks’ oeuvre as it served as the inspiration and model for the monumental “The Hour of Prayer at the Pearl Mosque, Agra”(1889, Private Collection). Although some details were modified for the later work, the angle of vision and the play of sunlight and shadow remained intact. “The Hour of Prayer” won Weeks a Gold Medal at the 1889 Paris Salon, and the highest award, the Grand Diploma of Honor, at the Berlin Exposition of 1891."
Our painting can be scrutinized on many levels. Most of Weeks’ work is meant to be highly aesthetic in that the ornamentation of the architecture plays a main role in his canvases. Part of his ambition was the documentation of these exotic cultures. It was not only in the architecture but in the people and ethnic make-up of these cultures that he took an avid interest. In The Pearl Mosque, Agra he paints an accurate portrait of mid-day repose by the pool and is careful to put his figures in exacting stances that one would naturally encounter as opposed to romanticized views. He was one of America’s finest technicians of the 19th century in terms of his ability to render architecture and figures. At the same time he was progressive on the front of studies of light and this painting stands as a hallmark of his intense fascination with sunlight and its effects. It also reveals Weeks thought and work process leading up to a more major composition. In the grand Hour of Prayer at the Pearl Mosque, Agra we notice he moves his line of sight so that the figures on the left of our canvas are now at the back on the right of the final work. He has changed their arrangement slightly and it is noticeable to detect one of the main figures in the foreground is a version of the main figure in our work. Both achieve a languid depiction of daily ritual that is transporting and naturalistic in feel. Very few Americans made the arduous and dangerous trips that Weeks did throughout India and the Middle East. He rarely took an easier route and risked disease, cholera and extreme discomfort by taking inland routes that enabled him to see and absorb these countries to their fullest.
Florence Weeks Stone (received as a wedding gift from the artist)
Thence by descent through the family
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Edwin Lord Weeks, From the Black Sea Through Persia and India, New York, 1895, pp. 324-5