Gustav Sabac el Cher: A Prussian Love Story (1890)

Gustav Sabac el Cher was born in Berlin and made a long career as a musician, first in the Prussian army and then later as a conductor and band-leader. He was the son of August Sabac el Cher (ca. 1830s-1885), a latter-day “courtly Moor” who had been given as a boy to the Prussian Prince Albrecht on his visit to Egypt in 1843. August worked for Prince Albrecht and then joined the Prussian Army, fighting in the wars of unification and earning decorations for his service. He married Anna Maria Jung, the daughter of a textile manufacturer and was appointed to high office within the Prince’s household, becoming became financially independent and, in 1882, a Prussian citizen.

Gustav followed his father’s example and joined the Prussian Army as a musician and was stationed in various places around Prussia. In 1901 he married Gertrud Perlig, the daughter of a teacher, and in 1909 he retired from the Army and moved to Berlin, where he worked privately as a musician and conductor until he and Gertrud established a garden business in the Berlin suburbs. He and his white wife were patriotic Germans, members of the Stahlhelm whose two sons went on to fight for the Wehrmacht in the Second World War, and they were likely deeply disappointed when the national revival promised by the Nazis had no room for them. In 1933 their business lost its customers, forcing them to move back to Berlin. They opened a café there but soon had to close. Gustav died in 1934 and Gertrud in 1935.

As a Black man who occupied a visible position in the Prussian army, Sabac el Cher drew attention wherever he was posted. This attention could take various forms, for example racist complaints against the inclusion of Black men in the military, one of which led Sabac el Cher to sue a newspaper for slander and win. A different sort of example is an 1890 painting by Emil Doerstling that depicts Sabac el Cher with an unknown white woman. It does not seem that the two sat for the portrait, but rather Sabac el Cher’s presence provided Doerstling with an opportunity to express his fascination with the pairing of white with Black, a fascination expressed in the heightened color contrast. The painting is remarkable for the lack of animus at a time when such interracial pairings could provoke derision and outrage.

The portrait is generally known under the title “Prussian Love Story,” but this is a label given to it by a later art dealer. Doerstling’s original title is unknown.

Jeff Bowersox


Source: Emil Doerstling, Preußisches Liebsglück (1890), Deutsches Historisches Museum GM 94/33.

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