Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant was among the preeminent painters of orientalist subjects in France in the latter decades of the 19th century. In 1859, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse where he remained until 1866 when a municipal scholarship allowed him to continue his artistic training in Paris. In 1871, Benjamin-Constant embarked upon an extended sojourn, spending the better part of two years abroad, traveling first through Moorish Spain before joining Charles Joseph Tissot, French plenipotentiary to Morocco. During the artist's 16-month stay he collected artifacts and made sketches and studies that would provide the basis for his numerous compositions in the years to come.
By the mid-1870s, Benjamin-Constant had established a reputation as painter of orientalist subjects, ranging from grim and occasionally violent genre scenes, to opulent and visually alluring harem scenes. The Favorite of the Emir, painted in 1879, is typical of the latter category. Like many of his contemporaries, Benjamin-Constant was an admirer of Eugéne Delacroix. Benjamin-Constant's first teacher, Jules Garipuy, had been a student of Delacroix. In this painting, Delacroix's influence is evident not only in the subject matter but also in the lush palette and painterly surface. Benjamin-Constant puts his own distinctive stamp upon the work, however. This is most notable in the spatial construction of the painting and the sharp contrast he established between the rich patterning of the fabrics displayed in the foreground and the flat planes of vivid color in the background.
Benjamin-Constant took great delight in the juxtaposition of the richly embroidered fabric against the smooth pale flesh of the women's arms and chests and the subtle variations between the two women. On the right, the darkhaired woman gazes directly at the viewer while her companion is shown fully in repose, her body relaxed and her eyes closed as if lulled to sleep by the musician seated behind her. The paleness of her skin and her rich auburn hair suggest that she is not a native. Playing upon contemporary fantasies of European beauties who have been spirited away to lead the pampered, cloistered life of a courtesan in a harem—the inclusion of the man standing guard in the background at the far right of the composition serves as a reminder of the locale—Benjamin-Constant introduced an erotic charge into this exotic and visually seductive painting. This painting, the first by the artist to enter the Gallery's collection, is a gift of the United States Naval Academy Museum.
lower left: Benj. Constant
Juanita G. Ramsey [d. 1966, Mrs. DeWitt Clinton Ramsey], Washington, D.C.; gift 1959 to the United States Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis; gift 2010 to NGA.