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Orientalism: Depictions of the East in Western Art

The term Orientalism refers to the study and depiction of the Eastern world in art, literature and cultural studies. Much has been written about Orientalism and the way it can exaggerate, distort and often patronize the people and societies of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.  In Edward Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism, the author discusses the idea of Orientalism as being inherently political and tied to the imperialist societies that produced Orientalist art, literature and music. The presumption of Western superiority through clichéd and romanticized imagery has led to inaccurate perceptions of the Eastern world, specifically the Middle East. Said’s ground-breaking scholarship in this field has become the foundation for post-colonial cultural studies that address the debate surrounding Orientalism and the scholarship of colonial literature and art.

 Orientalist painting refers specifically to works of art that depict scenes in the Middle East and North Africa whose culture and landscape have interested Western artists as far back as the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Most of the Orientalist art that we see, however, dates from the 19th century and falls into the category of either French or British Orientalism. Both countries shared imperial and colonial practices in the East out of which grew cultural stereotypes that served as justification for their ambitions. Orientalist painting in the 19th century became an academic genre for Western artists who specialized in Oriental subjects. These artists took on the nomenclature ‘the Orientalists.’ As a sign of their specialization, the French Society of Orientalist Painters was founded in 1893.

French interest in the Middle East became widespread following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Syria in 1798 and 1801. Court painters recorded many of the campaigns helping to further interest in Napoleon’s military might as well as in Egyptology. Delacroix and Géricault, the great French Romantic painters, and Ingres, known as a Neoclassical painter, all painted works depicting battles and military scenes in the Middle East, as well as genre scene depictions of Islamic culture including harems and odalisques. French artists also travelled to Algeria and Morocco, bringing back sketchbooks and paintings of scenes from their travels. As the French became more engaged in North Africa, artists visited Arab and Jewish communities to help them to portray the exotic and colorful culture being newly discovered by Westerners. Often these depictions were romanticized or eroticized.

British Orientalist painting in the 19th century was socially conservative and more based in religion than in military conquest, though Britain’s interest in the failing Ottoman Empire was as strong as the French political interest in the region. William Holman Hunt, David Roberts and Sir David Wilke travelled to the Middle East and produced major works based on Biblical subjects with Arab costume and architecture. The British Orientalists were in pursuit of traditional Christian iconography set in authentic locations and were less interested in the eroticism of the exotic settings and peoples. Artists like John Frederick Lewis painted realistic genre scenes and architectural views of Middle Eastern life that were seen as authentic depictions of the society.

Towards the end of the 19th century, American painters began to travel to the Middle East and painted Orientalist subjects alongside their European colleagues. Frederic Church, James Chapney, Samuel Coleman, Walter Gould, Charles Sprague Pearce, Sanford Gifford and many others painted Orientalist works. In our October Fine Sale we have two exemplative works of American Orientalist art. Henry Roderick Newman’s Resting in the Courtyard is an example of subject matter presented as observation rather than idealization, similar in style to the British Orientalists. Another fine example of American Orientalism is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Cairo, painted during one of his visits to Egypt circa 1896.  Rendered in the Realist style he was known for, this work shows Tanner’s use of a loose, expressive brushstroke and shows his interest in light and color. It is interesting to see here how Tanner handled the subject matter of this painting, focusing on composition and technique over narrative and the predominant genre stereotypes employed by the Orientalists. Tanner left the United States and settled in France to escape the racism and prejudice he felt at home as an African-American.

Other examples of Orientalist art in the October Fine Sale include Scottish artist Hans Hansen’s Tangiers, Gaston Saint-Pierre’s genre scene of a mother and child in a Middle Eastern interior, and a pair of Moorish interior scenes from the Collection of Count Ivan Obolensky.

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