The Game of Gunpowder
Salvador Sánchez Barbudo

The Game of Gunpowder

c. 1900
  • Oil on panel

    36 x 78 cm

    CTB.1995.52

  • © Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza

Of all the celebrations and customs typical of the Arab peoples, the "Game of Gunpowder" was without a doubt one of the events which most fascinated the 19th-century Orientalist painters from all over Europe who travelled to Africa, captivated by the colour and exoticism of a civilisation so strange to Western eyes (and only discovered as a result of the Napoleonic Wars).

This celebration, which consisted of a group of horsemen racing in wild abandon across an open plain, performing dangerous manoeuvres on horseback while incessantly firing muskets, gave Orientalist painters the opportunity to depict the frenzied motion of the galloping horses with their legs enveloped in a mixture of desert dust and gunpowder smoke and the feverish, gesticulating figures of the horsemen in multi-coloured garments brandishing weapons.

Sánchez Barbudo also wished to make his contribution to that vogue by painting his own version of the Arabic celebration on this panel in Rome, probably taken from sketches or photographs by others, for there is nothing to suggest that he ever went to Africa.

Painted with astonishing swiftness and an extraordinarily temperamental, concise, synthetic technique, this picture demonstrates Sánchez Barbudo's elegance in the arrangement of the markedly horizontal composition as well as his most personal and fully mature style with figures and features in the landscape defined with short strokes barely suggesting outlines and pure spots of colour verging in some areas on abstraction, as on the right, where the drummers beating the rhythm of the race from the backs of their camels are almost indistinguishable.

Also evident in this painting are the artist’s decorative skill in his use of bright, blazing colours as well as his astounding ability – illustrated in the horse in the foreground – to capture movement as if photographically.

José Luis Díez