Noortman & Brod, 18th- and 19th- Century British Paintings, April and May 1983, New York, June and July, London.
William James Müller, one of Bristol’s most celebrated artistic sons, painted this vibrant and striking 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 the reality is that this identification is not possible, given that Burton did not obtain his celebrity status until after his trip to Mecca in 1853. Another possibility is the Scottish painter David Roberts, who like Müller was in Egypt in 1839. However, there is no evidence of them having met there and, despite quite close physiognomic similarities with Robert Scott Lauder’s 1840 portrait of Roberts in Ottoman attire (fig. 1), the sketchy nature of the present work does not allow for a definitive facial match. More likely it is a friend or model attired in fancy dress.
Fig. 1, Robert Scott Lauder, Portrait of David Roberts in
Ottoman costume, 1840, oil on canvas, 133 x 101 cm,
National Galleries Scotland
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 dazzling rapidity of execution for which Müller was famous is evident in the loose and spontaneous brushstrokes seen 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’.
Fig. 2, William James Müller, Street scene in Cairo,
oil on panel, 38 x 27 cm, Brighton and Hove Museums
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.
Fig. 3, Anonymous, c. 1844, Portrait of W.J. Müller,
daguerreotype, 10 x 7 cm, Bristol Museums
 N.S. 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.
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