To fully understand how and why the facts to be presented in the following paragraphs will be useful to anyone working on a presentation on art in the 19th century, a brief discussion on orientalism and what it entails is necessary. Orientalism refers to the orient or east as well as every concept that comes from the east. Similarly, Orientalism in 19th century art takes into consideration the effects eastern cultures – located in the Middle East and North Africa – had on 19th century art and the movement it inspired. So here are 10 facts on the orientalism wave that swept the West during the 19th century.
- The French invasion of Egypt in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte was largely responsible for Europe’s interest in all things oriental. The invasion which lasted till 1801 led to the inclusion of oriental culture in the art, literature and music scenes in Europe.
The book Description de l’Egypte, which was published in 1809 through 1822 consisted of four volumes describing Egyptian culture, topography, architecture and population was considered the most influential authority on oriental culture in the 19th century.
It served as a major inspiration to French artists, architects and decorators of the 19th century and its influence could be seen as part of the architecture and art of 19th century France.
- European artist’s depiction of violence in the orients were fabricated and inspired by the need for propaganda to enforce the West’s sense of superiority over the oriental way of life. The famous works of Eugene Delacroix were created basically to promote the stereotype of Arabs and Muslim men as savages hell-bent on tormenting Christians and destroying the western way of life.
Delacroix’s famous works – The Massacre of Chios and the Death of Sardanapalus were painted without the artist ever visiting the Near East. His works were based on newspaper clippings, shady eyewitness reports and romantic literature.
In the 19th century, even supporters of Eugene Delacroix’s work criticized the accuracy of his art by stating that his images were simply derived from pictures of the plague and the Paris mob.
- European Artists had no access to the women of the orient. In the 19th century, Muslim women lived privately and could not be accessed by men who were not relations or husbands without the men risking injury to their person.
Famous 19th century artists such as Jean-Leon George, Jean-Auguste Ingres, Delacroix and Theodore Chasse Riau had based their famous painting of oriental women on hearsay and in some cases French models.
Jean-Auguste Ingres popular series of paintings depicting Odalisque, the eastern concubine of a Turkish Sultan was actually the painting of a French model named Madame Felix.
- Photographic images of the orients were tampered with. The advent of photography in early 1800, and the corresponding advances made by scientists in capturing real-life images had little or no effect to the modes of capturing oriental culture.
Ironically some images of the orients were taking but in most cases, photographers preferred to stage scenes rather than capture the reality of the East.
According to photography scholar Nissan Perez, photographers chose to stage scenes so as to reinforce the West’s myopic view of the orients.
- Orientalist art was hugely popular in the 19th century. All over Europe – France, Britain, Italy etc. the fascination with the East led to the formation of art groups that placed their focus on explaining oriental culture through art.
In 19th century France, 1893 to be precise, the Society of Orientalist Painters was founded and it’s honorary leader was Jean-Leon Gerome who visited Morocco just once but painted images of Turkey and Western Asia and claimed they were factual.
On Jean-Leon Gerome’s only visit to Morocco, he wrote about his disillusionment with the fact that the subject matters of his paintings were not the reality on ground.
- The orients spurred a new wave of romanticism in art. The romantic era of European art was largely influenced by imaginations and stories of the orients. Although orientalism in art was looked down upon in the 19th century, the Romanization of oriental subject matters fascinated millions.
A large percent of the famous painters and artists of the 19th century based their work and made their names from creating eastern inspired art.
Oriental art circa 1760s focused on the landscape and architecture of the East. It was in later years of the 19th century that artists became enamored with representing oriental culture in art.
- Orientalist painters made up the ‘harems’. Eroticism and the false idea that women from the orients were erotic by Western males created a whole genre of exotic art in the 19th century.
According to Ruth Bernard Yeazell, the depictions of Eastern harems were based off western male fantasies and stories on what an oriental harem should look like.
Foreign male painters were not allowed into the seraglios but relied on stories from other women as inspiration.
- Unlike oriental art depictions, harems were more familial than erotic. What western painters termed as harems, were actually family centers and places for social gathering for women.
Richard Francis Burton toured Mecca in El-Madina and he reports a more family oriented arrangement were wives stayed separately from husbands instead of the western version of harems.
While western women saw harems as places of social gathering, Western males who had happened to form the majority of the painters viewed harems as a sexual place regardless of the facts.
- Factual representation of life in the orients exists. In the arts of the 19th century, some artist stuck to reality and produced realistic depictions of the East.
Some famous examples are the Italian artist Ippolito Caffi, who actually lived in the East and produced original art on life in the orients. Another notable mention is Fausto Zonaro, an Italian artist who became the official Ottoman court painter.
These artists including Gentile Bellini represented Middle-eastern women as reserved and demure unlike the majority of French oriental artists.
- Criticism of oriental art became widespread in the 20th century. The false nature of oriental life shown in 19th century paintings has been actively denounced by writers over the years.
Edward Said’s work ‘Orientalism’ was influential in challenging the West’s perception of oriental culture and women as depicted in the popular artworks of the 19th century.Other notable critical works include Ruth Bernard Yeazell’ s Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature and Howe’s Orientalism in French 19th Century.
Suren, L. (2010). Photography, Vision and Production of Modern Bodies, 70-80.
Irwin, R. (2006). Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents
Princeton Archeology Journal, Global and Views: Nineteenth Century Travel Photographs.
Jiman, M. (2009). Representation of Middle-Eastern Women in Orientalist Paintings in Nineteenth Century: A Comparison of French and Italian Orientalists.
Alexandra, J. (2009). Orientalism in French Nineteenth Century Art: The Enigma of the East.
Nancy, D. (2008). The Origins of Orientalism.
Thomson, G. (2008). The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Orientalism.
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