Sketch for Orientalist masterpiece sold to Toulouse Museum

An important oil sketch for Édourd-Bernard Debat-Ponsan’s Le Massage – Scène de Hammam (1883) has been sold by Bagshawe Fine Art to the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, France. The Musée des Augustins has been home to the finished painting since 1885.

Debat-Ponsan was born in Toulouse in 1847 and began his studies in art there at the age of 14. In 1866, he moved to Paris and entered the École des Beaux-Arts, taking a place to study in the atelier of Alexandre Cabanel. He showed his first picture at the Salon in 1870. Failing to win the Prix de Rome, he was nevertheless granted a bursary by the state to go to Rome to finish his studies. On returning to France, painting both in Paris and his native Toulouse, he produced academic pictures of a religious or mythological nature for the Salon as well as portraits and a number of landscapes.

Le Massage is not only Debat-Ponsan’s most famous work, but it is also one of the most famous of all French Orientalist works. Constantly in demand for loans to exhibitions both in France and overseas, it has slowly become an icon both of Orientalism and of French nineteenth-century Salon painting in general.

The sketch acquired by the Musée des Augustins - only recently discovered by Bagshawe Fine Art – is painted in oil on rough board. It shows the artist thinking through his composition, experimenting with the poses of the two central figures and refining their gestures. The sketch differs in several significant ways from the finished canvas, suggesting that this study was produced before any of the other known preliminary works for Le Massage, all of which are closer in design to the final exhibited painting.