"In a sense the limitations of Orientalism are, as I said earlier, the limitations that follow upon disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region."
1 of 5
Edward W. Said
"...the European, whose sensibility tours the Orient, is a watcher, never involved, always detached, always ready for new examples of what the Description de l'Egypte called "bizarre jouissance." The Orient becomes a living tableau of queerness."
2 of 5
Edward W. Said
"The aspect of this country will remain forever in my eyes, all my life long the men of this noble race will live and move in my memory; it is they who have really brought back to me the beauty of the ancients."
3 of 5
Eugène Delacroix Signature
"I have seen some highly curious things: primitive and overwhelming, touching and singular. At Constantine, which is high up in some enormous mountains, one sees the Arab people and the Jewish people [living] as they were at the beginning of time."
4 of 5
Théodore Chassériau
"This is a book of 'good faith'; my photographs confer it upon me."
5 of 5
Auguste Salzmann

Summary of Orientalism

Populating their paintings with snake charmers, veiled women, and courtesans, Orientalist artists created and disseminated fantasy portrayals of the exotic 'East' for European viewers. Although earlier examples exist, Orientalism primarily refers to Western (particularly English and French) painting, architecture and decorative arts of the 19th century that utilize scenes, settings, and motifs drawn from a range of countries including Turkey, Egypt, India, China, and Algeria. Although some artists strove for realism, many others subsumed the individual cultures and practices of these countries into a generic vision of the Orient and as historian Edward Said notes in his influential book, Orientalism (1978), "the Orient was almost a European invention...a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiments". Falling broadly under Academic Art, the Orientalist movement covered a range of subjects and genres from grand historical and biblical paintings to nudes and domestic interiors.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • One of the keys genres of Orientalism was the harem picture. Denied access to actual seraglios, male artists relied on hearsay and imagination to depict opulent interiors and beautiful women, many of whom were Western in appearance. The genre also allowed artists to depict erotic nudes and highly sexual narratives outside of a mythological context as their exotic location distanced the Western viewer sufficiently to make them morally permissible.
  • Orientalism disseminated and reinforced a range of stereotypes associated with Eastern cultures most notably regarding a lack of 'civilized' behavior and perceived differences in morality, sexual practices, and character of the inhabitants. This often aligned with propaganda campaigns initiated by Britain and France as colonializing powers and images are best viewed within the context of Europe's political and economic relationships with Eastern countries.
  • Many Orientalist images are infused with rich colors, particularly oranges, golds and reds (although blue tiles are also prevalent) as well as decorative details and these operated in conjunction with the use of light and shadow to create a sense of dusty heat that Westerners would associate with the prevailing view of the Orient.

Overview of Orientalism

Orientalism Image

From 1463 to 1479 Venice was at war with the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Sultan Mehmet II. Venice was defeated in a number of regions and subsequently forced to pay indemnities to continue trading on the Black Sea. In 1479, the Venetian government sent Gentile Bellini, the official court painter for the Doge of Venice, as a cultural ambassador to work for the Sultan. Bellini returned to Venice in 1481 but he continued to include Oriental motifs in his artwork and this can be seen in St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504-1507).

Key Artists

  • Ingres was one of the last painters of the French Neoclassist tradition, whose charismatic portraits opened the path to the more passionate and modern Romantic movement.
  • Eugène Delacroix's powerfully depicted love, war, and human sensuality, earning the artist both praise and controversy in his time. His preoccupation with color-induced optical effects and use of expressive brushstrokes were crucial influences on Impressionism and Pointillism.
  • William Holman Hunt was an English painter that co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His works are distinguished by their attention to detail, vibrant colors, and elaborate symbolism.
  • Exotic and sometimes scandalous subjects were Gérôme's specialty, and he led Neoclassicism and Orientalism art genres
  • Gustave Moreau was the quintessential French Symbolist painter who depicted narrative moments and figures from classical mythology and biblical history.

Do Not Miss

  • A vast number of major modern artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive' or 'naïve', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African, Oriental, Oceanic, and Native American to naive depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.
  • Japonism (Japonisme in French) describes the influence of Japanese art, especially woodblock prints, on French artists in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many Post-Impressionists were influenced by the flat blocks of color, the emphasis on design, and the everyday subject matter.

Important Art and Artists of Orientalism

Grande Odalisque (1814)

Artist: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

This work shows a reclining nude who turns to look at the viewer and various elements - the peacock feather fan she holds, the colorful turban she wears, a hashish pipe at her feet, the drapery and bedding - situate her within an imagined harem containing a fusion of Turkish and Babylonian iconography. By placing the woman within an Oriental setting, Ingres was able to depict a European nude with frank eroticism, made acceptable by the exotic context. The nude references classical works such as Titian's Venus of Urbino (1534) and Giorgione's Dresden Venus (1510), although the pose is most directly drawn from Portrait of Madame Recamier (1800) by Jacques-Louis David.

The painting, commissioned by Queen Caroline Murat of Naples, is notable for its anatomical distortions, which are meant to draw and titillate the erotic gaze of the viewer. The woman's right arm is longer than her left, and, her exaggerated spinal curvature would be accurate only if she had several extra vertebrae. Ingres employs an exquisite Neoclassical line and high finish to create a sense of objective observation, as if merely conveying what he sees, while, at the same time, his distortions of form for emotional effect bring in a Romantic element. His approach, combining an imagined scene with a polished technique, while exaggerating exotic and erotic elements, was to form the foundation for much of the Orientalist academic painting of the 19th century.

The odalisque became a notable element of subsequent art, as seen in Édouard Manet's Olympia (1863) and the Fauve works of Henri Matisse. At the same time, this image has become a flashpoint for contemporary feminist and post-colonial art, as the Guerilla Girls, a feminist art collective calling itself the "conscience of the art world" repurposed this image in 1989 through the addition of a gorilla mask, to call attention to the art world's inequity, using it to pose the question "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?". A number of other contemporary artists have also reframed the work, as seen in Renee Cox's Baby Back (2001) critiquing male European views of African women. The Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi decontextualizes this work in her Femmes du Maroc: Grand Odalisque (2008), stating that through her reimagining she seeks "to present myself through multiple lenses as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes".

Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834)

Artist: Eugène Delacroix

Set within an Oriental interior, furnished with Persian rugs and woven tapestries, this painting focuses on four women. One on the left reclines in an odalisque position, her half-shadowed gaze appraising the viewer. To the right two women appear to be in conversation and on the far right a black slave with her back to the viewer turns as if caught in midstride as she leaves the room. The arrangement and poses of the seated women are open and seem to invite the viewer into the private space, this is juxtaposed, however, with the challenging expression of the woman to the left. Although the image does not contain the overt eroticism of the Grande Odalisque, the loose clothing and dishabille appearance of the women alongside the Orientalist tropes such as the inclusion of a narghile pipe point towards their role as courtesans. The painting presents a complex contrast between Delacroix's detailed studies of dress and interior decoration made during his visit to Tangiers in 1832 and his incorporation of these into the European fantasy of the harem.

With this image, Delacroix gave Romantic impetus to the Orientalist genre of harem painting, while employing his scientific approach to complementary and contrasting color. The rich color palette combined with the soft depth of the shadows and the rays of sunlight that fall diagonally into the room from an implied window on the left, creates a sense of warm and vibrant intimacy. As Paul Cézanne said of Delacroix's work, "All this luminous color...It seems to me that it enters the eye like a glass of wine running into your gullet and it makes you drunk straight away."

This painting influenced countless artists as seen in Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Parisiennes in Algeria Costume (1872) and most notably Pablo Picasso's fifteen paintings series, Les Femmes D'Algers (1954-1955). Jonathan Jones has noted that the work "is one of the first 19th-century masterpieces of French eroticism, a radical genre that would lead through Courbet's Origin of the World (1866) and Manet's Olympia (1863) to Picasso's own revolutionary 1907 work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." The work has also provoked contemporary artistic responses, as seen in the Algerian Houria Niati's No To Torture (1982), a series that as art historians Nicholas Serota and Gavin Jantjes wrote, questions "the exotic stereotype created by Delacroix's women of Algiers and perpetuated in Picasso's fifteen canvases based on the same work. Historically Delacroix's original coincides with the establishment of French colonial rule in Algeria, and Picasso's abstracted versions mark the end of that rule."

Scene in the Jewish Quarter of Constantine (1851)

Artist: Théodore Chassériau

This painting depicts two Jewish women and a child who sleeps in a basket suspended by ropes. The room, poorly furnished and simple, with its neutral colors creates a contrast with the vivid color palette of the women's clothing, headscarves, and jewelry. The woman on the right whose gaze rests on the child, conveys a maternal solicitude, while the younger woman on the left, looks forward, as if daydreaming. Chassériau combined the emphasis upon figurative line of his teacher Ingres with the influence of Delacroix's rich colors to create his own unique style, capturing the emotional resonance of his subjects.

Chassériau saw this scene during a trip to Algeria in 1846 and made a preliminary sketch, writing, "I have seen some highly curious things: primitive and overwhelming, touching and singular. At Constantine, which is high up in some enormous mountains, one sees the Arab people and the Jewish people [living] as they were at the beginning of time." In this image he conveys the strangeness of the scene by emphasizing the basket suspended from the ceiling, its ropes creating a triangle that fills the center of the frame, this is juxtaposed with the domesticity of the women, a contrast of the everyday and exotic. The women's dress indicates that they are wealthy but this is at odds with their environment and the woman on the left does not wear shoes, a detail associated by Europeans with the 'uncivilized East'. This aside, the women themselves are complex and individualized, rather than stereotypical. As art historian, Marc Sandoz, wrote the artist "seems to have been seeking a way to revive and modernize contemporary portraiture" by emphasizing the internal psychological realms of his subjects.

Useful Resources on Orientalism

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"Orientalism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 08 Jul 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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