Orientalism art was a source of enduring fascination for European artists of the nineteenth century. The “orient” provided the opportunity to explore new artistic horizons. During this period, countries such as Greece and Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East became alluring symbols of exotic “otherness”.
While individual figures and the occasional Middle Eastern scene appear in Renaissance and Baroque artworks, the trend is a prominent feature of the French Romantic period.
This brief introduction presents art Orientalism and some of its most famous artists. From Rudolf Ernst to Jean Leon Gerome paintings, we explore Orientalist artworks and the inspiration behind them.
Art Orientalism refers to paintings (mainly created by artists from Western Europe) depicting scenes from the East. This trend reached its zenith in the nineteenth century.
Today, the best-known Orientalist paintings come from French artists such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jean Leon Gerome.
While artists at the time saw Orientalism as a positive development, modern scholars argue it represents a discriminatory mindset. Indeed, this exotic presentation of Eastern cultures demonstrates an intensely Eurocentric viewpoint.
Many artists had prejudiced views about Arab-Islamic cultures and their people. The reduction of the “orient” to snake charmers, mystics, and nude temptresses only furthered these viewpoints.
It is important to know that “Orientalism” does not just refer to artistic endeavors. As such, there is no single central belief.
The term refers to any scholarship, learning, or study of Islamic and Asian cultures, subjects, and languages. It covers academic research, an overall outlook or style of thought, as well as increased dealings with “oriental” people and cultures. However, Orientalism in art refers to work during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Before the eighteenth century, European contact with Eastern societies was minimal. In 1798 however, the French General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt. The French occupation of Egypt encouraged more European settlement in North Africa and the Middle East. Of course, some of these individuals were artists who captured their travels in paint.
Consequently, many early Orientalist artworks supported French imperialism. They depicted the Middle East as backward and tamed by French rule. Indeed, paintings such as Napoleon Visiting the Plague House at Jaffa (1804) by Antoine Jean Gros do just this. With Christian imagery referring to the divine touch of kings, Napoleon surveys the residents.
Romantic artists such as Eugene Delacroix also heightened themes of violence and unpredictability in their Oriental artworks. For instance, Delacroix’s famed Death of Sardanapalus (c.1827-28) depicts war, lust, and destruction.
Orientalist artists often traveled to Eastern countries, documenting their experiences. The resulting images frequently depicted a mixture of realistic and imaginary scenes.
This approach frequently included Eastern tropes such as snake charmers, veiled and semi-nude women, courtesans, carpet vendors, bazaars, and violent scenes. Jean Leon Gerome paintings, such as Snake Charmer (1889), exemplify these tropes perfectly.
Other paintings, such as After Prayer II by Rudolf Ernst, present a more nuanced and faithful view of Islamic culture. Nonetheless, these artworks contributed to the largely fanciful ideas of the “exotic East” presented to European audiences.
In addition to colonialist imperialism and increased trade, developments in art influenced Orientalist trends.
During the nineteenth century, Genre Painting became extremely popular in Europe. Although, most associated with the Dutch Golden Age of Art, Genre Painting continued in nineteenth-century France and England. It often involved interior scenes, with sitters either relaxing or working.
Combined with Orientalism, these genre scenes often depicted opulent interiors and harems. When creating these artworks, European male artists relied mainly on their imagination. These creative exercises resulted in highly decorated interiors and reclining odalisques. Mostly nude, these women existed solely for the male gaze.
Demonstrating this “imaginative” approach, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres never actually traveled to the East. Nonetheless, he painted several harem settings and sensuous odalisque figures. His famous paintings include Ingres Odalisque with Slave (1839) and La Grande Odalisque (1814).
As well as iconic artworks such as Ingres Odalisque, here are three more examples of Orientalism painting.
In this atmospheric painting, Eugene Delacroix depicts three women dressed in highly patterned, decorative fabrics. An African servant attends to the women. Her figure (clothed in dark, plain fabrics) contrasts with the paler-skinned females relaxing amidst the domestic opulence.
The group portrait represents a harem, with objects like hookah pipes and rugs visible on the floor. It was Delacroix’s first depiction of oriental scenes.
Demonstrating the lasting significance of Orientalism, this painting inspired many later artworks, for instance, Picasso’s Women of Algiers, after Delacroix (1955).
Painted in 1870, Jean Leon Gerome’s Moorish Bath demonstrates European fetishization and eroticization of Eastern subjects. Indeed, the painting has an intensely voyeuristic quality, with the nude woman facing away from the viewer. An African attendant washes her porcelain white skin. The African woman’s clothing slips down her chest, revealing her breasts.
In addition to the human forms, the interior tiles and architectural features are almost iridescent. This bravura display of skill demonstrates Gerome’s extreme attention to detail and painterly abilities.
Unlike the earlier two paintings, which focus on women, Rudolf Ernst portrayed a wide range of Orientalist subjects. From around 1885, the painter devoted his work exclusively to Orientalism, painting interiors of mosques, market scenes, men at work, and harems.
With pieces such as The Bird Seller, Ernst depicted scenes from everyday life in North Africa. Indeed, he traveled extensively in Spain, Egypt, Morocco, and Istanbul, documenting his travels. Ernst found these cultures so fascinating he also decorated his home (back in France) in an Ottoman style.
The painting recently sold (in 2013) for £10,000 at Christie’s Auction House in London.
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