John Faed became ‘an overnight Orientalist master’ when the present painting was exhibited in 1858. One of a group of richly-coloured oils made following a four-month trip to the Near East and North Africa in 1857, it depicts a market transaction between a bedouin and a merchant with the ruins of Luxor in the background. In a narrative not uncommon in Orientalist painting, a young female slave is offered to the seller of swords in exchange for some of his dazzling wares.
Faed, who was already critically-acclaimed by 1857, had trained as a miniaturist and was capable of exquisite detail in his work. In Bedouin Exchanging a Slave for Armour he showcases his extraordinary abilities, rendering the selection of armour, as well as the textiles worn by both men, with the superb precision of cabinet work whilst also conveying the seriousness of the negotiation taking place. Later in his life the artist wrote his recollections of traveling in Egypt, referring to some of the items he purchased to help him recreate his experiences in paint on return: … no ‘Spiers and Ponds’ Refreshment rooms at the pyramids, but our legs, horses and donkeys our only means of progression, and while on the move, carrying our provisions with us. On arriving in Cairo we made it the headquarters for sundry trips in the neighbourhood within a distance of twenty miles, and much delight we had in a country as new and interesting as Egypt… During our travels I picked up several valuables in costumes and armour which I afterwards made available in Eastern pictures both in Edinburgh and London.
Though Faed did not return to Egypt, or to Palestine which he had also visited in 1874, and in spite of his only producing a small series of overseas or biblical subjects, a feature in the Art Journal in 1871 called Bedouin Exchanging a Slave for Armour his ‘masterpiece’. It remains to this day a well-known and often-cited example of fine Orientalist painting by a British artist.
Mary McKerrow, The Faeds: A Biography, Canongate, 1982, p.22;
Rana Kabbani, Europe’s Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule, Palgrave Macmillan, 1986, pp.78-79 (illus. pl. 6) ;
Joan Delplato, Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasure: Representing the Harem, 1800-1875, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002, p.81 (fig. 3.1.4. illus.) ;
Nicholas Tromans ed., The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, exh. cat., Tate, 2008, p. 84, fig. 69 (illus.).