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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Frederick Arthur Bridgman

An Afternoon in Algeria, Frederick Bridgman.                     
Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1870s
I suppose everyone has erotic fantasies. If you're of the male persuasion, you've probably fantasized at one time or another about peeking into some Turkish sultan's harem, or perhaps that of an Arab sheik. (I've no idea what the difference is, or if there even is one.) Maybe you've visualized fountains bubbling in the background while dozens of nude or semi-nude, indolent women laze around a small bathing pool, perhaps caring for the offspring of their luxurious, days, leisurely evenings, and licentious nights. I don't imagine for a moment that I'll ever have the chance to indulge my fantasies. I don't know of any sultans having much in the way of a harem within easy driving distance of Southeastern Ohio. Moreover, a vacation in the middle-east would probably not be a very good idea at the moment. (Do harems even exist now days?) I'm not the first artist to possess such fantasies and probably not the last. One such American artist with one such fantasy was Frederick Arthur Bridgman. The only difference between he and I (other than over a hundred years difference in our ages) was that Bridgman did indulge his fantasy, traveling all over northern Africa and the middle-east painting colorful scenes of exotic Arab beauties (and a few ugly old men) to delight the mostly male tastes back home. Many of his works were, in fact, peeping and peeking into this all-female domain. The more I see them, the more I've come to realize that, while they might be fun place to visit, as they say, I wouldn't want to live there.
Reflections, Frederick Arthur Bridgman--a cooling respite from his usual work.
King David, 1877, Frederick Bridgman
Given the nature of his art, Frederick Bridgman came from the unlikely town of Tuskegee, Alabama, where he was born in 1847. He was the son of a doctor, and spent the Civil War years up north in New York as a draughtsman for the American Banknote Company. He literally drew a lot of money for his work. Though obviously a competent draughtsman, Bridgman spent his free time learning to paint, taking classes at the Brooklyn Art Association and at the National Academy of Design. Once the war ended, he moved on to Paris, joining the atelier of the noted academic artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. Strangely though, Bridgman did not become a Gerome acolyte. Though he liked and respected Gerome's precise draughtsmanship and refined handling of paint, Bridgman took from Gerome mostly his mentor's strong interest in the Middle-Eastern content. His painting style he seems to have picked up from the nascent Impressionists--their loose handling of paint, at least. That's not to say that Bridgman was an Impressionist. Far from it, in fact. His rich, almost gaudy use of color and, hot atmospherics juxtaposed against cool interiors became one of the hallmarks of his painting style. Monet would have cringed.
Funeral Procession of a Mummy on the Nile, 1877, Frederick Arthur Bridgman 
Veiled Beauty of Constantinople,
Frederick Arthur Bridgman
Without so much as a trip home long enough to say "hi" and "bye," Bridgman left Paris in 1874 to see and paint firsthand the exciting, North Africa he found so enticing, dividing his time between Algeria (then a French colony) and Egypt. Although few of Bridgman's paintings have firm dates attached to them, his An Afternoon in Algeria (top) appears to have resulted from this first visit. I mentioned cool interiors earlier. This ain't one. You can almost feel the heat radiating from the women and children as well as the afternoon sun outside. Only the mandolin player adds a touch of coolness to the scene. When Bridgman returned to Paris, he entered his Funeral Procession of a Mummy on the Nile in the 1877 Salon. It was purchased by the publisher of The New York Herald while also winning Bridgman the French Cross of the Legion of Honor, as well as the moniker, the "American Gerome."

A Street Scene in Algeria, Frederick Arthur Bridgman
The Bath (detail), 1890, Frederick Bridgman
Bridgman made several return trips to North Africa and later the Middle-East, each time collecting souvenirs consisting of the colorful native costumes he love to paint so much. His most popular and most typical work has come to be A Street Scene in Algeria. His friend and fellow American, John Singer Sargent, lumped Bridgman's costume-cluttered studio and the new Eiffel Tower together as "must-see" Paris attractions for visiting tourists. For an artist working in Paris and exploring the colorful world of the Middle-East, that left little time for Bridgman to return to the U.S. But that didn't keep his work from being hugely popular back home. He had exhibitions in Chicago at the Art Institute, in New York's velvet-lined Fifth Avenue galleries, becoming a full-fledged member the National Academy of Art, while also garnering Museum shows at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Somewhat surprisingly, Bridgman's work remains quite popular today. Recent auction sales put his work in the quarter-million range and beyond. For an artist who died almost a hundred years ago (1928, at the age of eighty-one), that's a pretty good range to be in.

Diligence, Frederick Arthur Bridgman.
No, it's not a scene from the American West...the European West perhaps
--late 19th-century mass transit. The title suggests it wasn't all that pleasant a mode of transportation.


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