Exotic 19th-century Morocco portrayed in Montreal exhibit

Evening on the Terrace (Morocco) by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant conveys a popular image of languid life of the Maghreb of the 19th century.   MMFA, CHRISTINE GUEST PHOTO

MONTREAL — Life in 19th-century southern Spain and Morocco, with its mixing of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures, is vividly recalled in the current main exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA).

Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism From Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in his Time, which continues in the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion until May 31, is organized with the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, France and co-sponsored by the embassy of Morocco and the Communauté sépharade unifiée du Québec (CSUQ), among others.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902), a once-popular French painter on both sides of the Atlantic, is being rediscovered by the art world. This exhibition is one of the largest ever of his work and also features other artists of the era who were fascinated by the Maghreb.  

Benjamin-Constant’s dazzling, sunlit often huge canvases are considered prime examples of the art movement known as Orientalism. His capturing of this mysterious world of potentates’ sumptuous courts, sensuous harems and days whiled away in the Mediterranean’s languid warmth fed the imagination of his fellow Frenchmen.

Colonial France was enchanted by this exotic and somewhat menacing world seemingly untouched by time, yet relatively close at hand.

Benjamin-Constant did not rely solely on stereotypes; he spent a great deal of time in Andalusia and, across the Strait of Gibraltar, in Morocco, but he did not shrink from employing a little fantasy, some might say cliché, in his paintings.

The prolific Benjamin-Constant earlier on found numerous patrons in North America, as well as Europe, and his work is found in private collections in the United States and Canada, but he is little known today.

The MMFA possesses four of his paintings, which were acquired by Montrealers during his lifetime.

Almost 250 works are on view by Benjamin-Constant and several other Orientalists, as well as earlier artists who influenced them, notably Eugène Delacroix. 

Seventy-one lenders contributed to the exhibition from North America, Europe and Morocco, bringing many of these works together for the first time. Some had been kept in storage for decades and required restoration.

A 400-page catalogue, with over 500 illustrations, covering Benjamin-Constant’s entire career has been published by the MMFA, the product of research by an international team of experts.

Among the works of clearly Jewish themes in the exhibition are Alfred Dehodencq’s imposing 1861 Execution of a Jewish Woman in Morocco, inspired by the real-life public beheading of 17-year-old Sol Hachuel in Fez in 1834.

She was executed for alleged apostasy from Islam – even though the teen apparently never converted. Hachuel became a Jewish heroine, having purportedly declared, “A Jewess I was born, and a Jewess I wish to die.”

The painting depicts a surging mob around her as the executioner draws his sword toward the neck of the kneeling girl.

A small 1832 Délacroix oil depicts a languid street scene in the Jewish quarter of Meknes, while A Jewish Woman of Morocco is an 1868 portrait by Charles-Emile-Hippolyte Vernet-Lecomte of an apparently wealthy woman in the traditional frock and headdress worn on special occasions.

By Benjamin-Constant is Judith, his 1886 rendering of the brave and, in his imagination, sultry biblical heroine, swathed in clingy garb and sword in hand. It’s on loan from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The CSUQ and the company, Buffalo David Bitton, are supporting a number of activities related to the exhibition. Among them is a lecture on March 18 by Peggy Davis, an art history professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, on “La harem dans la peinture: l’Orient fantasmé.”