Bresdin was a highly imaginative Romantic artist who spent the majority of his life in obscurity and poverty. We know virtually nothing of his early artistic training, although he evidently studied the old masters, notably Dürer and the etchings of Rembrandt. Already in the 1840s, many of his prints are characterized by themes drawn from the life of Christ, using dense forest settings and extraordinary detailing.
This renowned print was the product of well over a year of preparation, beginning with sketches executed in Toulouse in 1860. Bresdin subsequently made a number of changes directly on the lithographic stone before moving to Paris in March 1861 where he completed the work. The original title, Abd el-Kader secourant un chrétien, alluded to a popular contemporary event, which Bresdin typically clothed in allegorical and Biblical terms. Abd el-Kader (1808-1883) was an Emir of Algeria who had led his nation against French occupation for fifteen years, surrendering only in 1847. Imprisoned in France until 1852, he moved to Damascus after his release where he devoted himself to religious studies and reflection. However, in 1860, conflict between Muslims and Christians in Syria resulted in massacres of Christians throughout the country. El-Kader personally protected, with his followers, an estimated 25,000 Christians and 5,000 Jews in Damascus, including the French consul. It is Bresdin’s transformation of the subject and his use of diverse, unrelated sources that is so fascinating. The artist shows El-Kader as an exotic non-Christian saving a single Christian in the midst of savage wilderness. The camel is clothed in regalia associated with Algeria. Note the monkeys at right. The imaginary city in the background resembles neither Damascus nor the Jerusalem of the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan. Bresdin was himself a devout Christian, and the print reflects his faith and belief in nobler societies and exotic lands where such ideals were still imaginable.