In the summer of 1928, the Lebanese painter Khalil Saleeby and his wife Carrie Aude were murdered outside their home at the foot of Mount Lebanon.
Saleeby had a steady run of commissions at the time, several of which sat unfinished in his studio. The artist was toying with techniques he'd learnt in Europe, employing new-found pinks and opalescent blues. He was also painting nudes. Time with impressionists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Gustave Corbet in Paris had brightened his palette and softened the academicism and objective rigour of his earlier work.
"I've read notes from the trial after the murder, and the prosecutor is trying to portray Saleeby as some sort of pervert," says Octavian Esanu, a curator brought in to put together the first public exhibition of Saleeby's work that opened last week at the American University of Beirut (AUB). "But the judge countered this; he said he was a genius, a hero, someone who introduced fresh ideas into this country."
In November last year, Dr Samir Saleeby - a distant relative of the artist - gifted 59 paintings and four watercolours to AUB, including 31 by Khalil himself.
"Extraordinary people have a crazy or childish side to them," says Dr Saleeby, now in his 80s, referring to the painter's dispute with local farmers over the use of a freshwater spring that somehow escalated into his murder.
"My father tried to tell Khalil to not be so stubborn and let the farmers use the water that was on his land. Of the thugs who killed him, one of them was hanged, three spent some 30 years in prison. We lost Khalil."
Dr Saleeby, who has turned down several handsome offers for Khalil's works over the years, has now gifted his collection to AUB, albeit with certain strings attached: the paintings must never be sold, they must be the subject of academic research and be made available for the public to see. The current exhibition continues until November and has been designed to tie the chronology of the painter's life to certain thematic concerns and show how a traditional portrait painter blazed a very modernist trail in regional art.
AUB also plans to build the Rose and Shaheen Saleeby Museum, in honour of the doctor's parents, which will be partially funded by private donors. When it opens in 2020, it will provide a permanent home for these excellently preserved examples of Lebanese modernist art and a space to exhibit potential future donations.
Born in 1870, Saleeby studied at the Syrian Protestant College (what is today AUB) before heading to the West to pursue his ambitions.
In 1890, he eschewed the artistic centres of Paris and Rome and moved instead to drizzly Edinburgh, where he met John Singer Sargent, an American portraitist. The two became close friends and Sargent encouraged the younger painter, sharing his self-conscious technique of dense layered brushstrokes. He also pushed Saleeby to visit America where, in Philadelphia, he met his future wife.
"We want to emphasise his relationship with Carrie Aude in the exhibition, because he made a lot of portraits of her and in them one can see a very tender relationship," says Esanu.
The couple moved to Paris shortly afterwards. There, Saleeby met Pierre Cecile Puvis de Chavannes and Renoir, and exhibited at the impressionist-focused gallery owned by Paul Durand-Ruel.
Too often, the Lebanese painter is stylistically linked to the impressionists. Henri Franses, associate professor in the department of fine art and art history at AUB, refutes that: "He's much more solid ... the impressionists are concerned with the play of light on surfaces, whereas Saleeby is after getting hold of the object itself."