Frederick Arthur Bridgman is well known as an Orientalist painter. He produced a large number of pictures in his lifetime, traveled extensively and kept company with some of the better-known artists of the 19th century.
Spending much of his life as an expatriate, Bridgman had very curious beginnings. Born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1847, he had a father who was a practicing physician from the north who died when Frederick was only three. By his early teens, with the Civil War just around the corner, Frederick and his family relocated to Boston where he soon began to apprentice at the American Banknote Company. He excelled as an engraver as he took classes in drawing and design at night. He first exhibited a painting at the Brooklyn Art Association in 1865.
By 1866, Bridgman, just 19 years old, made the courageous decision to move to France where he began to study under Philadelphia artist Robert Wylie who was at the head of a growing American art colony in Pont-Aven in Brittany. Bridgman’s discipline and commitment were intense. Within two years in fact, his talent earned him a spot in the atelier of the most famous and most accomplished of all Orientalist painters, Jean-Leon Gérôme. Bridgman quickly earned the respect of his teacher and the other students.
Bridgman made his first trip to Tangier in 1872. It was this trip that would alter his original plan to be a painter of American landscapes and would expose him to scenes and subjects that would eventually be associated directly with him.
Bridgman’s first trip took him through Morocco and Algiers, the latter of which was a favorite of French travelers at the time. Bridgman became fascinated with the color, light and lifestyle of Arab and Berber people as experienced in cafes, bazaars and private living quarters. In his travels, Bridgman experienced both the luxurious life found in any European colonial establishment as well as the barren and austere life of the locals when he traveled away from the bigger cities and into the desert and oasis regions.
And Bridgman, like many of his painter-traveler counterparts of the era, was not immune to the hostile conditions of the Sahara desert. Near the town of Biskra he suffered a sunstroke which brought him within an inch of his life. He kept detailed notes of his journeys, and after convalescing, he published an account of his experiences in his book, Winters in Algiers.
Later he would rent a studio in the poor quarters of Biskra where he began to do extensive studies and paintings of models. This was not an easy task among the private, weary locals who were always suspicious of European travelers. Bridgman began to learn Arabic and maintained an intensive work schedule. This is the period during which he would develop the elements and techniques that would eventually define his style. He spent 1873-74 in Egypt, touring up the Nile with friend and fellow American painter, Charles Sprague Pearce. In Cairo they stayed in the now infamous Shepheard’s Hotel.
Bridgman experimented with many of the different genres within the Orientalist style, including Biblical recreations, archeological reconstructions of Ancient Egyptian life, Arab street scenes and desert scenes, excelling in all of them. But it was the depiction of the private lives of the people of North Africa, and particularly the interior lives of women that would become Bridgman’s most well known subject. Whether in actual harem scenes in which several women lived under the husbandry of one man or simply the day-to-day lives of mothers and children in their homes,
Bridgman practically defined the genre of the Near Eastern female scene. While access to such places as private homes or interior courtyards has been characteristically difficult even for locals, let alone foreigners, artists like Jean Leon Gérôme and Bridgman seemed to have faired better than many others in befriending locals and earning their trust enough to sketch and paint their private homes. This implied impenetrability or the ‘secret life’ of the odalisques became a great rage in Europe, and artists including Bridgman had no trouble in finding eager buyers for his pictures.
Orientalist Interior is one such picture. Bridgman had favorite elements that he often used in great variation including seated women around a low table, mothers and daughters doing household chores, or relaxing in the afternoon in open patios or near the sunlight of an open courtyard. Orientalist Interior contains all these elements. Using the basic characteristics of North African, Moorish architecture and interior design, Bridgman was able to produce a number of such pictures both en route while traveling and when back in Europe in his studio space. This picture is dated 1900, but many pictures of a similar style may have been painted many years before and many years after this date. The warm glow from nearby sunlight, the spattering of sunlight through the wooden lattice of the wall mashrabiyas, hanging urns and draped cloth and carpets were all favorite tools and props of Bridgman, which he went back to throughout his life.
In 1888, he had a show in New York at the American Art Gallery of more than three hundred of his works. Shortly after he was elected to the National Academy of Design, and in 1907 was made an officer of the Legion d’Honneur. Bridgman’s career remained on top until the outbreak of the First World War around which time he retired to a home he had in Lyons-la-Foret in Normandy. He died in 1928.
Paris Salon, 1868, 1877 (medal)
Paris Exposition, 1878, 18889, 1900 (medals)
Munich, 1891 (gold)
Berlin, 1892 (medal)
Antwerp, 1894 (medal)
Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, 1901 (medal)
St. Louis Exposition, 1904 (medal)
Mulhouse Museum, France, 1926
Corcoran Gallery of Art
Art Institute of Chicago
Academy of Art, Leningrad