Robert Dowling spent 1872–73 in Cairo and worked for a total of three years on this major orientalist picture. His intention was ‘to produce a careful illustration of Oriental life, architecture, and costume, as he saw them in the streets of Cairo’ (Mr Robert Dowling’s Oriental Picture, Launceston, 1877, p. 1). So successful was he that those of his contemporaries who knew Cairo could identify, from the entrance to the mosque on the left, and the distinctive wooden balconies, or mashrabiyyas that project from the facades of the buildings, the very street which forms the backdrop to this scene.
In the lower half of the canvas Dowling arranged his dramatis personae in a frieze-like composition. The sheik and his son, mounted on Arab horses, are at its centre, preceded by musicians, attendants and servants, and followed by two caparisoned camels, one conveying the younger children of the family, ‘who, in Mahomedan countries, always take precedence of the mothers, and, last of all, away up that narrow street … on another camel, the women of the Sheikh’s harem, attended by a Moorish servant’. (Mr Robert Dowling’s Oriental Picture, Launceston, 1877, p. 4)
Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia