Two Men in White
oil on canvas
Provenance: UK private collection
Purchased from the Fine Arts Society in 1964
With frame 53.5cm high, 47cm wide
Without frame 33.5cm high, 27.5cm wide
Stock no.: A5455
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Two Men in White
If a painting could bring continents together, it would be this one, “Two Men in White”. Bridging the narrow gap between Southern Europe and North Africa, this work has been ascribed to José María Escacena y Daza. Although not signed by the artist, the attribution is confirmed by a very old and worn label on the back of the stretcher. The spelling of the artist’s name is appropriately imprecise for the time. The writer may have been an English speaker confused by Spanish orthography or pronunciation, adding a ‘y’ and imagining the letter ‘ñ’ (eñe) where it could never have been. The inscription does, however, follow this artist’s practice of using only one part of a long name.
Escacena is barely known today. Two centuries ago, he was given some recognition, mainly as a link between his Spanish homeland, the anglicised world of Gibraltar, and what was then regarded as the mysterious Orient. His output is equally varied. Along with British military and Iberian picaresque subjects, there are formative views of Morocco and its people. The diversity of his oeuvre makes it difficult to establish whether these men in white were sitters of sufficient renown to justify having their portraits painted or were examples of the “types” that Orientalist artists revelled in recording. The faded label on the back hints at them being “two persons well known”.
Little is known about Escacena’s life. There is uncertainty about details such as the year of his birth (probably 1800), making him unlikely to have been from an esteemed dynasty of painters. He did win awards, mainly in his native Valencia, and held teaching positions. The greatest honour of his career came after his death, when his work was seemingly displayed at the 1862 International Exhibition in London.
Escacena’s real significance is as an early exponent of Orientalist art. He was a pioneer in Spain and within the entire genre he should be placed in the vanguard. Marlène Lespes, a French authority on Orientalist art, praises him as a painter who took Orientalism in a new direction. Taking the “costumbrismo” approach, he combined realism and romanticism to produce views of everyday life in the relatively fresh surroundings of the Orient as well as in his native Spain. The latter was viewed by much of Europe as being the same thing as the Orient anyway.
As with so many other artists at the time, Escacena must have fallen at least partly under the spell of Delacroix who was himself so captivated by North Africa. Not that Escacena’s sitters rely as heavily on the props that other Western artists used to aggrandise their subjects. In our painting there are, instead, clues. They might be red herrings, but the eye is led away from quizzically self-assured faces by details such as prayer beads and a nimcha sword. The man on the right has all the accessories, including what appears to be a taweez talisman hanging round his neck. Encasing Qur’anic or other invocations, it is of a type that is still popular in much of the Maghreb and disapproved of by religious purists in many other locations.
The sitters’ clothing is entirely authentic for the region. Worn by everyone from Moroccan kings and religious leaders to most of the male population, these superbly rendered burnouses are not very informative about their wearers. The colour, rather than the cut, indicates that they are from the higher end of the social spectrum. It also tells us that the artist relished the traditional painterly challenge of using white, or close to it, to show off his brushwork. Escacena has surpassed himself here. Few of his other paintings have the same extent of simple fabric put to such a sumptuous effect. Typically, Escacena painted more colourful costumes or scenes with people accompanied by architecture as a visual diversion. Few of his works are still extant, and they seldom appear at auction or in exhibitions. For an artist of some repute in his day, the physical legacy is slight. The known works include vibrant Spanish peasants, military figures, bunches of grapes and still lifes. Most important are his street scenes of Morocco.
Despite the enigma of Escacena’s life, it is almost certain that he knew David Roberts (1796-1864). As the great Scottish Orientalist was travelling in Spain before Escacena went to North Africa, it is possible that he encouraged Escacena to venture south too. Among the few scholars who have tried to piece together Escacena’s career, Enrique Arias Anglés has suggested the two artists may have travelled to Tangier together in 1833. There is a further possibility that he may have been in the company of another legendary British Orientalist, John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876), who was in Spain and Tangier around that time. Alternatively, Escacena might have journeyed by himself a year later. Whatever the chronology, he painted a number of Orientalist subjects. It is also apparent that he sought a semblance of realism over the romanticism that prevailed in Europe.
Escacena turned his back on the Spanish tradition of strong contrast between light and shadow, combined with volume that is almost sculptural. In this painting he comes closer to the soft weightlessness of British watercolours, despite using oils. He had many creative contacts in common with Britain’s two great early Orientalists, the aforementioned Roberts and Lewis. Whether he worked with them or not, the influence of these legendary figures is visible in the work of a man who has received none of their acclaim. Escacena deserves more. Spanish Orientalists have, in general, been neglected. In their own day they often moved to Italy to enhance their careers; scant attention has been paid to them in comparison with their French and British counterparts.
Unlike Roberts – who rarely painted human subjects unless they were part of the scenery – or Lewis – who was so desperate for sitters he tried to palm himself and his wife off as locals – Escacena spent time among the people and produced what appear to be convincing portraits. “Two Men in White” not only adds significantly to the output of an overlooked Spanish artist, but it also nudges the entire Orientalist field into new territory. Without knowing anything about the two subjects, we are witnessing an early, sympathetic psychological study. These two men are not exotic specimens of decay or “noble savagery” to be used as conversation pieces in a Victorian home. There is an intimacy in this painting that transforms the sitters into individuals, without the remoteness or implausible heroism of so much portraiture at the time. These men in white do not lose any of their dignity in the process. They are not so different from a portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel McCleverty, attributed to Escacena, although the two men in white have a more penetrating gaze than that of McCleverty, the British empire builder who served in Gibraltar circa 1852. Fortunately for the artist, McCleverty’s uniform has prodigious amounts of white cloth with which to display his virtuosity (National Army Museum, London, ca. 1852, Accession Number NAM. 1982-05-137-1).
Whilst many portraits of North African sitters can border on caricature, the two men in white radiate a sense of the real. In the same year this painting was executed, Delacroix was working from memory on a composition that could not be further from Escacena’s impression of the Islamic world. Delacroix’s “Convulsionists of Tangier” (Minnesota Institute of Art, USA, Accession Number 73. 42. 3) shows a veritable frenzy of religious devotion, in contrast to the composure of the “Two Men in White”. Much later, Escacena’s compatriot José Tapiro took up a similarly ecstatic theme while living in Tangier. The rational calm of “Two Men in White” was truly ahead of its time.
The identity of the two men in our painting is a mystery. Both figures resemble the anonymous subjects of Escacena’s “In front of a Moroccan House” and “Entrance to a Moroccan Coffee House.” These are both signed works that mention the artist and the place of painting, Gibraltar. The panels have identical dimensions: 46 x 36cm, somewhat larger than “Two Men in White”, an unusual size for a double portrait as it is too big to carry around as a keepsake and too small to hang on a wall.
The artist would have been less concerned with the consistent placement of his signature than with making a direct association between himself and the British outpost. He seems to have been there in the company of Roberts in 1833, and again in 1839 – without his Scottish companion. As with Escacena’s posthumous showing in London, it is another indication that the market he sought was in the UK rather than his homeland. During the mid-19th century, with Britain at the zenith of its power and wealth, Spain was enduring civil war. The money was no longer in the Iberian Peninsula.
Other paintings by Escacena were inscribed with Tangier. One intriguing work from 1834, now lost, was titled “Two Arab Chiefs”. Could “Two Men in White” be a later version of the same subject? They are much more likely to be chieftains than religious leaders. In addition to the presence of an amulet, portraiture was a low priority in a region that had been contending with Wahhabism. A member of the ‘Alwawi dynasty, Mawlay Sulayman bin Mohammed, had ruled for 30 years and died in 1822. He had set a precedent for combining military, religious and political expertise. Only one tentative portrait of him is recorded. His nephew Abd al-Rahman bin Hashim was the ruler at the time of “Two Men in White”. Portraits of rulers were rare, although there is a fanciful, grand and unofficial scene painted by Delacroix, “Moulay Abd-er-Rahman, Sultan du Maroc, sortant de son palais de Meknes, entouré de sa garde et de ses principaux officiers”
(Musée des Augustins de Toulouse, France, Inventory Number 2004-1-99).
At the time, portrait photography was so experimental as to be non-existent.
The era of Abd al-Rahman saw tense relations between Morocco and the European powers. The Moroccan king was a supporter of the Algerian resistance hero Abd al-Qadir, and Tangier provided a warm welcome to Algerian refugees from the conflict with France. “Two men in white” might fall into this category. Their clothing is common to Morocco and Algeria, as is the nimcha. Escacena’s connections, however, were all with Morocco.
There is an air of command about the two sitters that indicates a position of importance which could be royal, military or diplomatic. For example, there was a long history of recording Moroccan ambassadors in England. The first image of a Muslim painted in Britain was of Abd al-Wahid bin Masood in 1600 (“The Moorish Ambassador”, University of Birmingham, BIRRC-A04207). “Two Men in White” is among the earliest portraits of two Muslim men painted by a Spanish artist in the British territory of Gibraltar, or anywhere else. Fifty years later such paintings were ubiquitous, usually by the hands of Austrian and German artists. With a work dated to 1839, Escacena was in the avant-garde. This is a remarkable painting of unknown sitters for an unknown purpose, by an artist who deserves to be better known.
Arias Anglés, Enrique. "Escacena y Daza, Pionero del Orientalismo romántico" in Archivo español de arte, Volume 72, Madrid, 1999. Pp. 279-87.
Dizy Caso, E., Les Orientalists de l'Ecole Espagnole, ACR Editions, Paris, 1997.
Lespes, Marlène. De l’orientalisme à l’art colonial: les peintres français au Maroc pendant le Protectorat (1912-1956). Université Toulouse le Mirail - Toulouse II, 2017. (Doctoral thesis)
 Dizy Caso, E., Les Orientalists de l'Ecole Espagnole, ACR Editions, Paris, 1997 pp. 80-81