While exploring a stock of photographies by Josef Steinlehner, I found the pictures of four painted portraits of the sovereigns: Menilek, Taytu, Zäwditu and Täfäri, which might undoubtedly dated from the 1920s. I had in mind the pictures used as models for the paintings and, of course, tried to know more about those paintings. Let me try to link the painted portraits with known photographies and, afterward, to name the painter.
The painted portrait of Menilek is based on a photomontage due to Haigaz Boyadjian in the 1920s and using a photographic portrait of Menilek by his father Bedros Boyadjian (Berhanou Abebe, “Les Boyadjian…”, in Connaissance des Arts, hors-série 327, 2007).
The portrait of Menilek’s consort, Taytu, is based on a well-known photography that was widely used in the early 20th Century press, by engraving or similiphoto (London Illustrated News, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung…). The picture was published in Guebre Sellasie’s Chronique du règne de Ménélik II, roi des rois d’Ethiopie (edited by Maurice de Coppet, 1922, vol. II, p. 512) with no mention of the photographer who seems to remain unknown so far.
Emperess Zäwditu is painted in profile. The photography of the same portrait is widespread on internet but I couldn’t any sample with an authorship. The closest photography I found that has an authorship is the portrait by D’Anelli on which she appears full-face. It is doubtless that both pictures were shot during the same session and we can assume that the profile portrait was made by D’Anelli as well.
On the painting, Täfäri is wearing his princely crown as at that time he was ranked with the title of ras endä-rase (prince and regent). He changed his crown in October 1928 after being coronated as negus (king), a necessary step to later reach the status of negusä nägäst (king of kings). In any case, the portrait was painted before 1928 as an official image must be up-to-date in terms of titles. Three documents might highlight the painted portrait because of their similarity and, obviously, their inspiration in the same photography which I was not able to locate so far.
A set of two stamps (dated from 1919 and printed in Switzerland) shows the regent in similar position with the same crown and the same adornments. There is also a maxi-card from the “collection Michel” similar to one of the two stamps. Of course, there are no evidence that Adolphe Michel, once manager at the Ethiopian Postal Administration and retired in Nice (France), is the author of the photography, as there is at least one exemple that Michel used a photo from someone else. This topic was documented by Hugues Fontaine (here and there). Adolphe Michel is also the one who ordered the printing of the set including the two stamps we refer to.
One of the four portrait (Taytu) mentions a name and a date (down right): ‘Prof. A. Fischer Berlin 1922’ which clearly to have been overprinted. A close examination of the picture with a magnifying glass reveals a similar mention on the painting itself. The same for Zäwditu’s portrait but nothing visible on Menilek’s and Täfäri’s. Nevertheless, it seems that those two portraits are not completely framed on the pictures.
Arthur Fischer (1872-1948) is a well-known German court painter of the first half of the 20th Century. Many portraits out of his studio can be fine and the signatures on the Ethiopian portraits comply with others. On his 75th birthday, in 1947, the German magazine Der Spiegel published an article which remains the most of the biographical information available (see Der Spiegel online). With his workshop, he painted over 10,000 pictures. He travelled a lot and even lived in the United States for a few years in the 1930s. Between the two World Wars, he was appointed as official court painter in many countries, such as Persia, Russia, the German Ländern, Bavaria, Romania… He painted the portrait of kings and emperors, but also Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini or Theodore Roosevelt…
The Ethiopian ‘National Museum’, Addis Abäba, keeps a portrait of Menilek inspired by the one painted by Arthur Fischer and it is signed by an Ethiopia artist. Times ago I took that picture without paying much attention to it and now I can’t read the name on the painting. Unless someone can help me, I’d make this point clear at the occasion of a next trip to Ethiopia.
Estelle Sohier (SOHIER Estelle, Le roi des rois et la photographie…, 2012, p. 304) wrongly ascribed the wall paintings in the mausoleum-church of Bä’ata Maryam to Mäzmur Zädawit, refering to Haile Gabriel Dagne. Those paintings are the work of the German painter Helmut Eichrodt who was appointed by the architect of the mausoleum, Karl Härtel (DEWEL Serge, Addis Abäba (Éthiopie) 1886-1966. Construction d’une nouvelle capitale pour une ancienne nation souveraine, thèse de doctorat, 2017, pp. 312-314). The confusion might come from the following detail. According to Elizabeth Biasio (Encyclopedia Aethiopica, vol. 3, p. 896), Mäzmur Zädawit (also named Mäzmur Dawit) would have painted the portraits of Menilek II, Taytu and Zäwditu that are in the mausoleum of Menilek, the crypt of Bä’ata Maryam church. Nowadays, only framed printed portraits, using the process of lithography, can be found in there. The lithography showing Menilek seems to be a reproduction of the painting showed in the ‘National Museum’ of Addis Abäba.
The political context when ordering the paintings
As always, an official portrait is purposely ordered and the reason is not simply the portrait itself. In this case, we have four portraits and this should explain the circumstances under which the order was placed. Wether they were displayed at that time in the mausoleum or not, those portraits follow the same logic as the construction of the mausoleum itself. The purpose was to show the new rulers, after the 1916 coup, empress Zäwditu and the regent Täfäri, as rightful to succeed to emperor Menilek II. There was some controversial about ras Täfäri’s position and modernization project and he needed to be directly linked to the former ruler, Menelik the winner at Adwa and the protector of the national sovereignty.
As a conclusion we might wonder where are those paintings now? I do not have any clue to answer this question. I would not be surprised if they were destroyed or looted by the fascists during the Italian occupation of Addis Abäba.