Middlebury College Museum of Art

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Whirling Dervish

September 3, 2015

Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824–1904), Sketch for Le derviche tourneur [The Whirling Dervish], c. 1868–89, oil on paper mounted on canvas. Purchase with funds provided by the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Art Acquisition Fund, 2014.019.

The French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme is best known for subjects derived from his travels in the Near East. While his style is often associated with Orientalism, the 19th-century European taste for depictions of “exotic” subjects, Gérôme did not render his subjects in the patronizing manner characteristic of many of his contemporaries. Rather, with his meticulous, loving attention to detail, he created images of Turkey, Egypt, and Syria with a level of objectivity and precision unusual for his time.

Jean-Leon Gerome, sketch for Le Derviche Tourneur, the Whirling Dervish

This work is a preparatory oil sketch (an important step in Gérôme’s working process) for a larger painting he completed in 1899, now in a private collection in Qatar. The subject depicts the interior of a zawiya or Sufi lodge that has recently been identified through correspondence with American University of Cairo scholars Bernard O’Kane and Nicholas Warner as the 15th-century Tekke of Qasr al-Ayni, in Cairo. The structure stood across from Rhoda Island on the eastern bank of the Nile until it was demolished in the early 20th century to expand a neighboring hospital, known today as the New Kasr El Aini Teaching Hospital.

Eliot Porter, Dungeon Canyon
Left: Exterior of the 15th-century Tekke of Qasr al-Ayni, in Cairo, recently identified as the setting for Gerome's Whirling Dervish. Right: Interior of the Tekke of Qasr al-Ayni, showing the mihrab.

The lodge consisted of a courtyard and two domes, the larger of which is depicted here (above, left). Some architectural elements of note include the squinches, which figure prominently in the composition of this sketch, the frieze near the top, which bears calligraphic ornamentation over an arabesque pattern in the finished painting, and the mihrab or prayer niche to the left (above, right), behind the musicians, which indicated the direction of Mecca—the direction all Muslims face during prayer.

The Tekke of Qasr al-Ayni changed hands multiple times over the course of its history, belonging to different Sufi orders at various points in time. Perhaps due to the hybrid history of its subject, the painting contains some intriguing juxtapositions. The figures here are engaged in sama’, the Sufi ritual of remembering the names of God accompanied with dance and music, through which participants seek to achieve religious ecstasy. Yet while the central figure, the titular “whirling” dervish, is identifiable as a member of the Mevlevi order, some of the figures surrounding him are likely to belong to another Sufi order, the Rifa’iyya, known in the West as the “howling” dervishes, forming an unusual assembly of two distinct Sufi orders that may have served to attract foreign tourists. This scene might therefore represent, rather than an authentic Sufi ritual, the typical experience a European traveler may have encountered in late 19th-century Cairo.