The American approach to the Orient differs from that of the artists of the European countries, particularly in their approach to women. While the European, and particularly the French, artists depict Oriental women in institutional subjugation within a harem, surrounded by guards, Bridgman's view takes a completely different turn. Bridgman's woman is alone. There are no clues in the background as to her station in life. The artist uses the motif of the open door to suggest either freedom or surveillance, and this motif appears more than once in his oeuvre.
Frederick Arthur Bridgman was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1847. Sensing the north-south tensions prior to the Civil War, his family returned to their native Boston soon after Frederick’s birth. They later moved to New York, where Frederick began to show his artistic talent. As a teenager, he joined the American Banknote Company as an apprentice engraver.
In 1865 and 1866 Bridgman exhibited works at the Brooklyn Art Association. Encouraged by his success, and with the sponsorship of a group of Brooklyn businessmen, the young artist set out for Paris. In the autumn of 1866 he joined the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme where he studied for 4 years, spending the summers in Pont-Aven, France.
During the winters of 1872 and 1873, Bridgman traveled to Spain and North Africa, starting in Tangiers and traveling on to Algeria. He sampled the local nightlife and spent afternoons exploring the surrounding villages and oases on horseback. It was during this time that he began to paint North African scenes depicting the exotic culture in which he was immersed. Bridgeman remained in North Africa for the next five years, though he regularly took part in the Paris Salons, as well as exhibited in several London venues.
Bridgman’s travels in North Africa and Egypt brought about a radical change in his palate, which became much paler. He was also a photographer and often worked from his photographs when painting, depicting the world of richly adorned women in veils and using transparent effects, and white on white. As well as his scenes of everyday life, Bridgman painted historical subjects from ancient Egypt and Assyria.
The next ten years was a period of uninterrupted success. In 1890 an exhibition of his pictures took place at Fifth Avenue Galleries in New York. As his career progressed, he continued to paint Orientalist themes, though he also explored the symbolist style, society portraiture, and historical and biblical themes. In 1907 he became an Officer of the French Legion of Honor.