Orientalist Painting
History & Development of Orientalism.

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Prayer in the Mosque (1871)
By Jean–Leon Gerome.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
A masterpiece of Orientalist painting.

Orientalist Painting (c.1800-1890)


What is Orientalist Painting?
History and Development
Most Popular Orientalist Painters

Evolution of Art
For the development of arts and crafts, see: History of Art.
For a quick guide to specific schools and styles, see: Art Movements.

Girls Dancing and Singing (1902)
By Etienne Dinet. Private Collection.
Dinet, who eventually converted to
Islam, captures the vibrance of his
Algerian subjects.

The Women of Algiers in
their Apartment (1834)
By Eugene Delacroix.
Louvre Museum, Paris.

What is Orientalist Painting?

In fine art, the term "Orientalist Painting" refers to the depiction of people or places in present-day Greece, Turkey, North Africa or the Middle East, by painters from the West. Although this form of Orientalism has its roots in Renaissance art, it gained widespread popularity both with art collectors and art critics in the early 19th century due to the mood of Romanticism then prevalent. The catalyst for this Orientalism was Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, which stirred up considerable interest in the area and its culture. As a result a number of painters (mostly French) took to visiting North Africa, the Levant and the Middle East, where they produced a variety of genre painting and studies of everyday life - set against the backdrop of mosques, bazaars, souks and other public places.

Orientalist painting was welcome at the Paris Salon: indeed, it had a strong impact on French painting of the period, attracting particular interest from the guardians of academic art in the French Academy and in the Royal Academy in London, where Orientalism became virtually an independent genre of Victorian art, owing to its popularity among the public. Painters who went abroad to embrace the idiom included the great Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), the academician Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) and David Wilkie (1785-1841) - the leading British genre painter - who was was fifty-five in 1840 when he travelled to Istanbul and Jerusalem, dying at Gibraltar on his way back to Britain. After flourishing for 70 years or more, Orientalist art began to lose its hold on the public's imagination during the 1880s. The establishment of the Society of Orientalist Painters, founded in Paris in 1893, proved to be its tombstone. Postcolonial critics have since labelled "Orientalism" as patronizing and culturally misleading propaganda - which it undoubtedly was. Even so, it gave Romantic artists a host of new subjects to paint as well as new forms of light and colour with which to brighten up the dullest of exhibitions.



History and Development

Paintings with Middle Eastern figures and scenes appear in Early Renaissance painting and, in particular, Venetian painting, by such artists as Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), and others. The Dutch Baroque genius Rembrandt (1606-69) - the world's greatest Biblical painter - is also associated with such paintings, while the dissolute opulence of Levantine harem scenes appealed to the erotic aesthetic of 18th century Rococo art - as popularized by Francois Boucher (1703-70). But if Orientalism per se was nothing new, it was rarely seen. And very little of the Christian art on display, with its Middle Eastern scenes from the Bible, was in any way Orientalist. Most of it depicted Italianate countryside (Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1520, by Joachim Patenier) and featured European-looking figures (Discovery of the Young Moses, 1580, by Paolo Veronese) in an idealized style. The only gesture to Middle Eastern or Levantine orientalism was the occasional minaret, turban or Turkish-style hat (St Mark Preaching in Alexandria, 1505, by Gentile Bellini).

In simple terms, 19th century Orientalism satisfied a public curiosity for the Near East following the French military campaign in Egypt, and the publication by the French government in 1809 of the 24-volume "Description de l'Egypte" (1809–22), illustrating the geography, architecture and social customs of Egyptian North Africa. Of course, some of the early Orientalist paintings were nothing more than cultural propaganda in support of French imperialism, depicting the East as a place of backwardness, gratifyingly enhanced by French rule. A typical example is Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa (1804, Louvre, Paris) by the official Napoleonic artist Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835), who never even left the shores of France, let alone visited plague-ridden Palestine.

Sadly, some paintings were deliberately salacious, playing on the erotic fantasies of art collectors and public alike. This tendency is exemplified by Jean-Leon Gerome's sleazy work The Snake Charmer (1879, Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts), in which a group of men sit on the ground watching a young nude snake charmer, against a dazzling background of Islamic tiles that make the painting shimmer with blue and silver. At the same time, Gerome was capable of producing an absolute masterpiece such as his Prayer in the Mosque (1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Another armchair Orientalist was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) a doyen of the French Academy, noted for his meticulous, highly polished works. Like Baron Gros, Ingres never travelled to the East, but titillated his public with nude concubines and imagined Turkish harem scenes, such as The Turkish Bath (1863, Louvre) and La Grande Odalisque (1814, Louvre).

One might also say that, in addition to their erotic content, these orientalist harem paintings evoked a cultivated, pampered existence to which many Westerners aspired - not unlike the popular 'Roman' paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), such as The Tepidarium (1881, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). In any event, the taste for Islamic art and oriental motifs found its way into the decorative art of many homes in England and France, as exemplified by the mosaic art in the home of orientalist Frederic Leighton (1830–1896).

NOTE: For a taste of real Orientalism, see Islamic Art Museums across the world.

Orientalism also stimulated a new type of detailed and realistic Biblical art, including new versions of scenes from the life of Jesus and his disciples. This development is well illustrated by the religious art of the Russian Itinerants School, which includes masterpieces such as: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1887, Russian Museum, St Petersburg) by Vasily Polenov (1844-1927); and the Raising of Jairus's Daughter (1871; State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg) by Ilya Repin (1844-1930). This type of detailed realism appealed particularly to the Protestant aesthetic of fidelity to nature, exemplified by paintings like The Finding of Christ in the Temple (1860; Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery), and The Miracle of the Holy Fire (1899, Fogg Art Museum) both by William Holman Hunt of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Of those artists who did travel to the Levant and North Africa, many went with the idea of plein-air painting, although this became much more convenient following the invention of the collapsible tin paint tube in 1841 by American painter John Rand - an event which had a significant impact on the development of Impressionist landscape painting with its focus on capturing the momentary light at a scene.

Irish artists who travelled to the Middle East were all outdoor painters. They included: Nathaniel Hone the Younger (1831-1917), one of the first Irishmen to paint in Egypt during the 1870s; Aloysius O'Kelly (1853-1941), who followed in the 1880s; and Henry Jones Thaddeus (1859-1929), who visited Algeria in 1885.

A particularly interesting Orientalist was the Frenchman Alphonse-Etienne Dinet (1861-1929), noted for his richly coloured masterpiece Girls Dancing and Singing (1902), whose rapport with Arab culture and language set him apart from other Orientalist painters. A graduate of the Ecole nationale superieure des Beaux-Arts, Dinet went to Algeria in 1884 and 1885. In 1889 he founded the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts along with such luminaries as Ernest Meissonier (1815-91), Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) and Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). In 1903 he bought a house at Bou Saadain in Algeria, where he lived for most of the year, and in 1913 converted to Islam, taking the name Nasreddine Dinet.

The appeal of Orientalist imagery endured in the painting and printmaking of numerous twentieth century artists, including Renoir (1841-1919), Matisse (1869-1954), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), all of whom experimented with Orientalist themes.

Most Popular Orientalist Painters

Here is a short list of the leading Orientalists and their most famous examples of Orientalist art.

Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-89)

- Marie Adelaide of France in Turkish Dress (1753) Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Anne-Louis Girodet (1767-1824)

- The Cairo Revolt (1810) Palace of Versailles.

Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835)

- Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa (1804) Louvre, Paris.
- Battle of Abukir (1806) Palace of Versailles.
- Battle of the Pyramids (1810) Palace of Versailles.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867)

- La Grande Odalisque (1814) Louvre.
- The Turkish Bath (1863, Louvre.

Leon Cogniet (1794-1880)

- 1798 Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte (1835) Louvre.

Eugene Delacroix (1798–1863)

- Death of Sardanapalus (1827) Louvre.
- The Women of Algiers (1834) Louvre.
- Fanatics of Tangier (1838) Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (1803–1860)

- The Turkish Patrol (1831) Wallace Collection.

John Frederick Lewis (1804-76)

- The Reception (1873) Yale Center for British Art.
- The Midday Meal, Cairo (1875) Private Collection.
- The Harem - Introduction of an Abyssinian Slave (1850) Private Collection.

Theodore Chasseriau (1819–1856)

- The Toilette of Esther (1841) Louvre.
- Ali-Ben-Hamet, Caliph of Constantine (1846) Private Collection.
- The Harem (1852) Private Collection.

Jean-Leon Gerome (1824–1904)

- Heads of the Rebel Beys at the Mosque (1866) Private Collection
- Prayer in the Mosque (1871) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
- Pool in a Harem (1876) Hermitage Gallery, St Petersburg.
- The Snake Charmer (1879) Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts.

William Holman Hunt (1827–1910)

- The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860) Birmingham Art Gallery.
- Street Scene in Cairo; Lantern-Maker's Courtship (1861) Birmingham Gallery.
- The Miracle of the Holy Fire (1899) Fogg Art Museum, Massachusetts.

Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouy (1842-1923)

- The White Slave (1888) Musee des Beaux-Arts de Nantes.

Fernand Cormon (1845-1924)

- The Deposed Favourite (1872) Private Collection.
- Murder in the Seraglio (1874) Musee des Beaux-Arts de Besancon .

Giulio Rosati (1857-1917)

- Inspection of New Arrivals (1858-1917) Private Collection.

Ferdinand Max Bredt (1860–1921)

- Turkish Ladies (1893) Private Collection.

Anders Zorn (1860-1920)

- Man and Boy in Algiers (1887) Private Collection

Alphonse-Etienne Dinet (1861-1929)

- Raoucha (1901) Musee des Beaux Arts d'Alger.
- Girls Dancing and Singing (1902) Private Collection.

Works reflecting the style of Orientalism can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.

• For the background to the evolution of Orientalist painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
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