One of the most important artists of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe, Francisco de Goya was a painter, draftsman and printmaker who began his career making tapestry cartoons and who eventually painted for three Spanish kings. Although he produced many portraits and history paintings for the Spanish court, he is best known today for works that criticize the violence of war (The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid) or that show fantastical and haunted nocturnal visions, as in his Caprichos etchings (published in 1799).
In 1824, Goya retired to Bordeaux, France, where he spent his first winter in France painting miniatures depicting a wide range of subjects on small squares of ivory. Due to waning eyesight and an unsteady hand, he adopted a new technique. After darkening the ivory, he applied a drop of water to lighten and loosen the surface. He then manipulated the surface, improvising the final image by applying touches of watercolor with a sharp instrument. Made just five years before France invaded Algiers, Two Orientals reprises the artist’s earlier image of so-called Orientals — namely the Turkish soldiers who fought in Napoleon’s army — in The 2nd of May 1808 in Madrid. To paint these two middle-aged men, Goya used the same thick outlining, scrapes and loose brushwork that characterize many of his ivory paintings. Despite the small size, Goya renders in careful detail the faces and clothing of these men. Although the men do not make eye contact, the closely cropped framing and the overlapping of their bodies emphasize the intimacy of the scene. Cloaked in the darkness of their surroundings and the whiteness of their clothes, these men appear to step forward in a painting that is emblematic of the tension between perception and representation in artworks depicting seemingly faraway people and places.