Portrait of a Moor
Signed A. Strasser
Inscribed 1880 and Paris
Terracotta with a dark brown patination
Height: 21 5/8'' (55 cm)
Conceived and modelled circa 1880
Arthur Strasser (1854-1927) was an Austrian sculptor whose career developed in his home country, as well as France and Egypt. He was awarded the Austrian Emperor Prize for his artistic merits in 1893, and the State’s Golden Medal in 1896. His art can be admired in important public locations in Vienna, and is part of the Belvedere Museum collection.
At the age of 17, Strasser was inducted into the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and continued his studies in Paris between 1881 and 1883 upon receiving a travelling scholarship, associating himself with the French Naturalist movement. In 1892, the artist organised a trip to Cairo together with his friend, the painter Charles Wilda. This trip marked another fundamental moment in his career, which is generally associated with the development of Orientalism in late nineteenth-century Europe.
The present sculpture, Portrait of a Moor, is a unique, hand-modelled work by the artist. The sculpture’s nervous surface and the modelling underneath the bust testify to Strasser’s direct manipulation of the clay. Since Portrait of a Moor was cast in bronze multiple times during the artist’s lifetime, it is likely that the present terracotta was the original example from which the mould for the bronze edition was taken.
The inscriptions ‘1880’ and ‘Paris’ on the present bust contrast the publicly-know biographical information above, suggesting that the artist was already at work in France in 1880. Likewise, the bust’s subject demonstrates that the representation of foreign races concerned Strasser way before his 1892 trip to Egypt.
Perhaps Strasser, fascinated by the popular ethnographic models created by Charles Cordier (1827-1905), conceived the present Portrait of a Moor one year before starting his classes in Paris. In this light, the bold signature on the front of the figure’s torso testifies to the young artist’s desire for recognition in the undisputed artistic capital of Europe.
Strasser, Bust of a Nubian, 1892, Belvedere, Vienna
Similar inscriptions appear on another unique terracotta by the artist, the Bust of a Nubian, currently part of the Belvedere Museum collection. The piece was sculpted by the artist during his trip to Egypt, and is inscribed ‘1892’ and ‘Cairo.’ Just like in the present case, such inscriptions likely signal the artist’s awareness with regards to the importance of his travels for the development of his career.
As well as for its biographical and art-historical importance, the piece must also be admired for its beauty. The male figure’s look is intense and delicate at the same time. Yet, a slight sneer is at the same time suggested by the figure’s raising of his upper lip. As the likeness of the figure is imbued with the sitter’s character, the work was clearly the result of Strasser’s strenuous observation of his model. From a technical point of view, the depth of such a sculptural rendition is given by the varying colours of the patination and by the expert modelling of the clay.
The piece’s biographical relevance, its unique status in Strasser’s oeuvre and its undisputable visual qualities equally contribute to its rarity, while also testifying to the valour of an artist that has long been denied his place in the canon of nineteenth-century European sculpture.