Certain subjects of art have their day and then seemingly disappear. Think of socialist realist paintings of workers in Russia and the United States. Happy industrial and farm workers doing their part to smash capitalism were popular subjects in the 1930s (later in China after its Cultural Revolution), but no longer, only recalled with irony if at all. Like 1970s hair and clothing styles, one looks at them now with bemusement or shock: What were they thinking?
“Orientalist” art is a subset of European paintings, produced in large numbers during the nineteenth century, that has disappeared as a theme in art. No one creates it now, in earnest or with irony. Marked by colorful, exotic images of the Muslim world and parts further east, these are pictures associated with the European imperial expansion of the time. As a result, Orientalism is among the most politically incorrect art genres. These paintings were created by artists largely to portray an exotic world of less sophisticated and, often, licentious peoples—“a great deal of Orientalist art has quite louche subject matter,” a European art curator for a major art museum said—for a home audience that was becoming more and more interested in colonization and tourism. “It is very fraught,” said Laura Mathis, a specialist in nineteenth-century art at Christie’s auction house.
But even if Orientalism has lost its currency, it continues to generate plenty of currency. On October 31, for instance, Christie’s will be selling a number of Orientalist artworks as part of a nineteenth-century European art sale in New York.
Imperialist colonization and a worldview that all peoples outside Europe were primitive and required civilizing had long faded away by 1978, when the Columbia University literature professor Edward Said published Orientalism, which argued that Western literature (and, implicitly, art) had condescendingly and falsely portrayed the peoples and culture of the East. The year 1978, however, may be seen as the demarcation point in which this realm of art officially became politically and culturally incorrect.
Still, exhibitions of this art regularly take place at major museums, such as “The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, 1830–1925” at the Yale Center for British Art in 2008 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Orientalist Paintings from the Collection of Kenneth Jay Lane” this past summer. Two years ago, what must have struck someone at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts as a fun idea, to “Dress Up in a Kimono” in front of a painting in its permanent collection, Claude Monet’s 1876 La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), backfired when protests erupted over what one group called “cultural appropriation and orientalism.”
Although the nineteenth century in England and France was the high point of Orientalist art, antecedents can be found in the work of Venetian artists of the Renaissance, such as Gentile Belliniand Titian, whose goals were less to demean others than to propagandize Venetian military victories over the rival Turks. Nancy Demerdash, an art history professor at Wells College in Aurora, New York, finds lingering Orientalist influences in the work of Modern artists such as Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Henri Matisse in the twentieth century, not in terms of exoticizing foreign peoples but for the colors and fabric designs found in North African countries. “Klee was drawn to Tunisian rugs and textiles,” she said, “while the landscape of Africa fit in with his notion of colors being indicative of emotions and spirits.” These artists did not view North African culture as inferior to that of the French and, in fact, with the malaise of fin-de-siècle Europe and the later experience of the First World War, the world outside Europe looked relatively promising.
It was during the fifty-year period of the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century in England and France, though, that the volume of Orientalist art grew exponentially. Artists such as Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Géricault, Jean-Léon Gérome, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Horace Vernet in France; Richard Dadd, Edward Lear, John Frederick Lewis, William Holman Hunt, Frederic Leighton, and David Wilkie in England; as well as many others, produced a large body of sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings that offered a portrayal—sometimes realistic, sometimes fanciful—of the lands that the public in these countries was beginning to learn about from trade, military conquests, and tourism.
Delacroix’s 1827 oil painting The Death of Sardanapalus, which is in the Louvre, is a fully fictional rendering of the death of the last king of Assyria, complete with rich colors and naked female mourners. The French artist Henriette Browne’s 1860 painting A Visit: Harem Interior, Constantinople tones down the overtly lubricious, portraying fully clothed women. The harem itself, however, remained a popular and tantalizing subject in Orientalist art. Ingres’ 1863 Turkish Bath at the Louvre offers a roomful of amply-proportioned naked women. An earlier work at the Louvre, Antoine-Jean Gros’ 1804 Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa, presents a heroic image of Bonaparte during his Egyptian campaign as he comes to a monastery to retrieve French soldiers who had taken ill (the artist also looked to quash rumors that Bonaparte actually had put sick soldiers to death).
Though his images were a mix of the factual and the imaginary, Delacroix actually traveled to the places he painted; other artists did not. According to Mathis, Ingres “never went to the Middle East, but he bought Orientalist bric-a-brac to include in his paintings.” Ingres’ Orientalist paintings are “very intricate, as is every work he did, capturing textures of fabric, designs on ceramics, diaphanous veils. They were never slapdash.”
She noted that Orientalist painting was very sought-after at the time, purchased by people who were making a journey to the Holy Land “or even people who didn’t go there but were captivated by the imagery in these paintings.” Delacroix later wrote that when he traveled to Morocco in 1832, just a few years after the French had invaded and conquered Algeria, the territory and people had not been described in books and newspaper accounts. As a result, he had had no information to prepare him for what he was going to see, and the artist noted that there was much in the culture he did not understand. The costumes people wore suggested to this Romantic-era painter a living antiquity, people from the classical age: “The Greeks and Romans are here at my door, in the Arabs who wrap themselves in a white blanket and look like Cato or Brutus,” he wrote in his journal. The artwork that he, and especially others, created depicting this land is seen through the lens of French bourgeois culture, reflecting its taste for flesh and luxury—the brocades, gold, tiles, and fur.
Orientalist art both reflected and inspired tourism, which Demerdash said was “indelibly linked to imperialism and colonialism. The British and French empires were expanding, and they needed British and French people to go to these exotic places and settle there.” The demeaning element of the artwork some of the artists produced—“the heightened sensuality, the fleshy theatricality, the portrayal of the rulers of these lands as tyrannical, despotic, primitive”—implied that empires helped civilize, thereby justifying colonization. Many French settlers appropriated fertile land in Algeria, becoming rich through growing olives, wine grapes, and other crops. “The French wanted to link themselves with Imperial Rome,” she said, “and for the ancient Romans North Africa had been the granary of Europe.”
Nowadays, we think of foreign travel as broadening and enabling a new perspective on our lives, and eventually Europeans would come to that view. Demerdash noted, however, that during much of the nineteenth century, the motivation behind travel to what we now would call the developing world had more to do with their health (warmer, dryer climates were considered curative for those with tuberculosis) and seeing the spectacle of how “lowly people live. We now think of it as slum tourism.”
Orientalist art was one of the most popular genres in the nineteenth century in Europe, according to Claude Piening, the head of Orientalist art at Sotheby’s London office. “One cannot deny that there was a commercial side to this. Orientalist subjects were quite saleable, which fueled more pictures.” Some artists were quick to cash in, “parachuting in to somewhere in the Islamic world, making a lot of pictures, and then going back to Europe to sell them.” A few artists, however, “went native,” spending years in the Middle East, such as the British painter John Frederick Lewis, who lived in Cairo from 1841 to 1851 and wore native clothing, and the French artist Nasreddine Dinet (whose given name was Alphonse-Étienne Dinet), who moved permanently to Algeria and converted to Islam.
To many, “Orientalism” has a negative cast, but not everyone views it in this way. Interestingly, 70 percent of Sotheby’s sales of Orientalist artworks (it holds an annual sale of these works each April) are to buyers in the Islamic world, Piening stated. “Harem paintings are not included in my sales,” he said. “No Western artist would have had access to a harem, so by definition these paintings would be inaccurate.” Buyers from Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and elsewhere in the region are particularly interested in Orientalist landscapes, equestrian paintings, falconry paintings (“falconry is very popular there”), scenes of markets and of people in prayer. “These are serious and noble subjects, the real-life workings of a society,” he said, adding that while artists living in the Islamic world were not discouraged from creating representational images of life, it wasn’t particularly encouraged. The customary artwork of the time and region consisted of intricate, if abstract, designs. As a result, the paintings of the region by Western artists “fill a visual gap for a moment in time before photography was available.”
He noted a decline in art with Orientalist themes in the early twentieth century, but by then artists from the Middle East “began producing their own images of the homeland,” which continues to this day. Sotheby’s holds twice-yearly auctions of Modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian, and Turkish art—another area of increasing sales.
When Napoleon returned to Paris in 1799 from his invasion of Egypt, he brought back with him a personal servant he had acquired while there. Roustam Raza helped the French emperor bathe and get dressed, bringing him cognac in a shot glass and sleeping outside Napoleon’s bedroom as security. It was Roustam’s headdress and colorful clothing, however, that caused a sensation among Parisians who had never seen anything like it. His own life—an Armenian born in 1782, abducted by slavers and sold several times before he arrived in Cairo some years before Napoleon arrived and defeated the Mamluks he was made to fight for—was of less interest to those Parisians. He was just so colorful.