Orientalism Art: A Brief Introduction
Orientalism art was a source of enduring fascination for European artists of the 19th 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 oil paintings and Baroque art, the trend is a prominent feature of the French Romantic period.
This brief introduction discusses Orientalist paintings and some of their most famous artists. From Rudolf Ernst to Jean Leon Gerome oil paintings, we explore Orientalist painting and its inspiration.
What does Orientalism in Art mean?
Orientalism art refers to paintings that were mainly created by artists from Western Europe but depict scenes from the East. This trend reached its zenith in the 19th 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.
What is the central belief of Orientalism?
It is essential 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, and increased dealings with “oriental” people and cultures. However, Orientalism in art refers to work during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Before the 18th 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 settlers in North Africa and the Middle East. Of course, some of these individuals were artists who captured their travels in paintings. Consequently, many early Orientalist artworks supported French imperialism. They depict the Middle East as backward and tamed by French rule. Indeed, oil 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 paintings by artists like Eugene Delacroix also heightened themes of violence and unpredictability in their oil paintings. For instance, Delacroix’s famed Death of Sardanapalus c1827 depicts war, lust, and destruction.
How did Orientalist artists work?
Orientalist artists often traveled to Eastern countries, documenting their experiences. The resulting oil paintings frequently depict 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 this trend. Other paintings, such as After Prayer II by Rudolf Ernst, present a more nuanced and faithful view of Islamic culture. Nonetheless, these oil paintings contributed to the largely fanciful ideas of the “exotic East” presented to European audiences.
What influenced Orientalism Art?
In addition to colonialist imperialism and increased trade, developments in art influenced Orientalist trends. During the 19th century, Genre Painting became extremely popular in Europe. Although most associated with the Dutch Golden Age of Art, Genre Painting continued in 19th century France and England. It often involves interior scenes, with sitters either relaxing or working.
Combined with Orientalism, these genre paintings depict opulent interiors and harems. When creating their paintings, 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 scene paintings and sensuous odalisque figures. His famous paintings include Ingres Odalisque with Slave 1839 and La Grande Odalisque 1814.
What are examples of Orientalism?
As well as iconic artworks such as Ingres Odalisque, here are three more examples of Orientalism painting.
Eugene Delacroix depicts three women dressed in highly patterned, decorative fabrics in this atmospheric painting. An African servant attends to the women. She is clothed in dark, plain fabrics, contrasting 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 is just one of his famous nude paintings. Gerome's oil on canvas paintings demonstrates the 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 focusing on women, Rudolf Ernst portrayed many 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, Rudolf Ernst depicts 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 in France in an Ottoman style. The painting sold in 2013 for £10,000 at Christie’s Auction House in London.
Orientalist art: Fine art oil paintings for sale
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