Lot 6: Edwin Lord Weeks (American, 1849-1903)
April 19, 2006
New York, NY, USA
Interior of La Torre des Infantas, illustrating the legend of the three Moorish princesses, in Washington Irving's "The Alhambra"
signed 'E. L. WEEKS' (lower right)
oil on canvas laid down on board
32 x 39 1/2 in. (81.3 x 100.3 cm.)
Painted in 1881-82
Property from a Distinguished Collection
Edwin Lord Weeks' Interior of La Torre des Infantas had its debut at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1882, one of three paintings the artist sent from his studio in Paris. In a letter to George Corliss, the Academy's Director, Weeks described the painting as:
"an attempt at rendering one of Irving's Legends of the Alhambra, 'The Three Moorish Princesses'- and the interior itself is the identical spot where the --- was laid. I have attempted a restoration of the original color as the arabesque work is now partially destroyed."
(Letter from Edwin Lord Weeks to George Corliss, 6 September 1882; Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; excerpt reproduced with permission).
That Weeks chose to sign the painting with block letters indicates that he regarded this work as a very important one, as the artist reserved this form of signature for his monumental paintings or other works he considered particularly significant. In the case of the present painting, this is a reflection of Weeks' empathetic relationship with history through literature, a recurring theme in the artist's work and one with a clear connection to his academic training. Although the artist's most familiar historical works, from the mid-1880s throughout the 1890s, center around the Moghul courts of 17th Century imperial India, the artist also produced a series of paintings influenced by "A Thousand and One Nights," based upon his travels in Persia. Indeed, the present painting can be seen as one of Weeks' attempts to link his sojourns through Spain and Moorish North Africa with the literature and history of the places he visited.
Thus it is easy to understand Weeks' enchantment with Washington Irving's tremendously evocative chapter "The Three Moorish Princesses" in The Alhambra, after visiting the site himself. Indeed, Weeks' effort in this painting could be said to mirror Irving's own representation of the Alhambra, as the author expressed it in his Preface of 1851:
"It was my endeavor scrupulously to depict its half Spanish, half Oriental character; its mixture of the heroic, the poetic, and the grotesque; to revive the traces of grace and beauty fast fading from its walls; to recall the regal and chivalrous traditions concerning those who once trod its courts; and the whimsical and superstitious legends of the motley race now burrowing among its ruins."
Weeks painted various rooms, courts and vistas of the Alhambra during two visits to Spain; the first en route from Paris to Morocco in the mid-1870s, and the second on his return to resume residence in Paris in the early 1880s. Undoubtedly, he knew the hilltop palace itself well, with its immense fortified walls and strategically-placed towers, one of which, known as the Torre des Infantas, Weeks visited and studied for the present painting. Weeks, by then, had read Irving's The Alhambra, one of the great popular romantic works of literature of the 19th Century, and the stories and legends the book contained surely appealed strongly to the artist's visual imagination.
One of the best known legends of the Alhambra was that of the three captive princesses, in which a tyrannical Moorish king fathered beautiful triplet daughters, Zayda, Zorayda, and Zorahayda, by his young Spanish wife, whose Christianity he had forced her to renounce. To protect them from suitors when they became of "a marriagable age," as Irving describes it, the king imprisoned the three princesses in a tower in a palatial room, connected to the world beyond only by a window with a view across a ravine toward the gardens of the Generalife on a nearby hill. Entranced by three captive Christian Spanish cavaliers, whom they could see from their window, the princesses eventually conspired with their duenna to elope with the virile and handsome young men, as they themselves fled their Muslim captors. At the last moment, one princess decided to remain behind, as her two sisters lowered themselves out of the great window on a rope ladder and galloped off with their suitors to a new life in Christian Spain. Tragically, the third princess, too timid to join her sisters in escape, pined away in the tower and died at an early age.
It is certain that the tower room which figures in the legend was in disrepair by the time Weeks visited the Alhambra. In his letter to George Corliss, the artist suggests that some details of the painting are an imaginative reconstruction. Photographs of the room from the 1890s indicate that some restoration work had taken place by then, and clearly demonstrate that the artist's depiction of the room and its decoration is characteristically accurate. But, for Weeks, the speculative reconstruction of the room's colors was an irresistible opportunity to let his imagination run free, in his depiction of the vast room and its one great window with its brilliantly-gilded honeycombed vaulted alcove, through color, brilliance and intricacy of form. But, for Weeks, the true character of the room lay in the special quality of the light which pervades it, and in the emotive portrayal of the sweet indolence of his captive subjects through pose, costume and facial expression.
Weeks portrays two of the princesses reclining within the lofty space of their tower room while the third stands gazing past the fretwork of the great window, through which the only light penetrates the scene, gradually fading into the depths of the room. One sister, wrapped in golden robes from head to toe, plays upon her lute to attract the cavaliers below, while another, in diaphanous silk adopts the pose of a buxom odalisque. Each princess wears heavy silver bracelets and anklets-jewelry suggesting the manacles of incarceration without actually depicting them. The entire scene seems one of erotic longing, as even the reclining princesses cast their eyes toward the open window and their thoughts to their three cavaliers beyond.
Weeks indulges all his faculties of sensuousness in his depiction of the maidens and the golden cocoon from which they dream of escape; the painting is everywhere a paean to captive eros in young women, to reverie and solitude, to languor and to great beauty. Although there is a superficial reflection of a harem about the scene, the princesses are depicted as fair-skinned Europeans; if these are harem women, they are those of French academic pictorial fantasy only. Weeks draws figures that are superbly proportioned, in elegant poses redolent of the atmosphere of the tower, and everywhere he paints surfaces that dazzle the eye with orientalist imagery. Most prominent is the deep, arched vault of the window alcove, with its honeycombed, gold-leafed ceiling, wooden screen, and the intricately-patterned tiled wainscoting that continues around the room.
Dimly seen but opulently painted decorative panels rise to the ceiling. In the shadows to the left of the lounging women is another arched alcove with a high platform covered in a ruby patterned carpet, and another pair of carpets cover a portion of the stone floor, with its green marble accents exquisitely reflecting the light as it dissipates towards the viewer. In the foreground is a fountain, as Irving describes in his tale, whose central jet promises a cooling spray and pleasant sounds. Finally, hanging in space from a mysterious and unseen ceiling is an strikingly intricate silver oil lamp-yet another opportunity for Weeks to display his fine hand, his keen sense of observation, and his sure command of reflection and surface.
The Interior of La Torre des Infantas is, in the end, a spectacular exercise in exotic mood. An artist who is so well known for his outdoor scenes set in brilliant sunshine here demonstrates a very special power to paint the subtleties of space, intricate pattern, color and reflection, and to represent human solitude within the vastness and half-light of a great interior space, all to evoke the emotions attached to a powerful moment in a great romantic legend.
This painting will be included in the catalogue raisonné being prepared by Dr. Ellen K. Morris. We are grateful to Dr. Morris for preparing this catalogue entry.
Anonymous sale, Christie's, New York, 29 May 1981, lot 232.
with Borghi & Co., New York.
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner.
Artist or Maker: Edwin Lord Weeks (American, 1849-1903)
Exhibited: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 53rd Annual Exhibition, 1882, no. 358 as Interior of La Torre des Infantas, illustrating the legend of the three Moorish princesses, in Irving's "Alhambra".
Exhibition catalogue, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Fifty-Third Annual Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1882, p. 25.
W. Irving, The Alhambra, New York, G. P. Putnam, 1894, p. 3, 244-69.