Alexandre Bida’s impressive drawing depicts a soldier at repose, perhaps taking a break from guard duty as suggested by the iron bars behind him. To judge from his tasselled hat, baggy white shirt, chibouk (long-stemmed Turkish pipe) and choice of weaponry, he is an Albanian soldier in Ottoman employ. Bida’s sitter sports loose fitting trousers, as opposed to the more common fustanella, a skirt-like garment traditionally worn by Balkan men (fig. 1).
Fig. 1, Ermé Desiré, Albanais au service de la police du
Care, c. 1860, albumen print, Getty Museum
Known as Arnauts, these Albanian soldiers enthralled European travellers and artists, no doubt because of their warlike reputation and striking appearance, with Lord Byron even employing a number of them as his personal guards and having himself portrayed in Albanian costume in the famous painting by Thomas Phillips. Whilst for the Turks, the ethnonym Arnaut was used to denote an Albanian more generally, for the Europeans who visited the Balkans and the Near East, the term became synonymous with the soldiers of that nationality used as mercenaries by the Ottomans.
Fig. 2, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Arnaut of Cairo, oil on panel,
26 x 20 cm, Private Collection
They were a favoured subject of Jean-Léon Gérôme, who encountered many Arnauts in Cairo in 1856 during his first trip to Egypt, and painted them at numerous reprises engaged in all sorts of different activities: on duty, praying, playing chess, smoking or dancing (fig. 2). Bida was likewise fascinated by Arnauts and there are several other examples of this subject in his oeuvre (fig. 3). Just as well-travelled as Gérôme, Bida visited Greece, Turkey, Palestine and Egypt in 1850, and would have seen Arnauts in all of these regions.
Regarded in his day as one of the finest draughtsmen of the time and a specialist in Orientalist subjects, Bida abandoned his career as a teacher of classics to study with Eugène Delacroix in Paris. It was the influence of Delacroix, as well as the work of Gabriel-Alexandre Descamps and Auguste Raffet, that led Bida to interest himself in Orientalist themes: at his Salon debut in 1847 he exhibited two highly finished drawings of A Café in Constantinople and A Café on the Bosphorous. Both were purchased by the State.
Fig. 3, Alexandre Bida, Arnaut smoking his chibouk,
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