Medieval Felucca Sailing Boats at Djibouti on the Red Sea Coast
Matthew Moss was asked by the Australian government to advise it on setting up a conservation laboratory for the restoration of Australian Old Master paintings in the historic township of Ballaret in the state of Victoria near to Melbourne. He sailed for Australia from Genoa on the Italian liner the Galileo Galilei. 'Boats at Djibouti' was painted by the artist while travelling eastwards through the recently re‑opened Suez canal. The long flat dhows had been used from medieval times to transport cargo along the Red Sea coast.
On the artist's journey the packet boat made a stop at the then French colony, Djibouti, resulting in two signed drawings of local boats. One of the pencil drawings is a series of four studies of feluccas that appear in a painting completed as the journey continued through the Indian ocean. Above the upper horizon to the left of the painting appear clouds taken from drawings done from the wake of the ship as it proceeded through the Red Sea. The fine grain Irish linen canvas had been prepared prior to the journey in Italy with a light ochre tone which appears through the azure sea background. The boats are similarly delicately executed, the technique ensuring that the two at the top merge gradually with the background tints and shapes.
The first drawing is also the source of the background boat appearing in the lower half of the canvas. It is of an intense cadmium yellow and the form is defined with flat white panels. The effect creates a two dimensional shape which does not unduly arrest the eve but instead leads it towards the foreground boat. The eye is further nudged in the same direction by the shape and direction of the ripples in the sea moving upwards from the base of the canvas. These are delicate traceries of white, fight cobalt and azure with some touches of emphasis created by the line of blue beneath the boat, the small shape of the rowing boat and the deep blue green shadows beneath the background one.
The foreground subject attracts the eye by the greater amount of colour in the hull: orange, white, yellow and green. This is further reinforced by the light cadmium yellow of the sails which is continued on in to the orange of the masts. The foreground boat is based on a second drawing done at Djibouti of a solitary felucca and similarly dated. The painting was completed and exhibited on board the Galileo Galilei prior to its arrival in New Zealand along with a work of the same format completed on the voyage and a group of Italian canvases.
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