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Orientalism is a term used by art historians and literary and cultural studies scholars for the imitation or depiction of aspects of Middle Eastern and East Asian cultures (Eastern cultures) by writers, designers and artists from the West. In particular, Orientalist painting, depicting more specifically “the Middle East”, was one of the many specialisms of 19th-century Academic art, and the literatures of European countries took a similar interest in Oriental themes.

Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, much academic discourse has begun to use the term “Orientalism” to refer to a general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies. In Said’s analysis, the West essentializes these societies as static and undeveloped—thereby fabricating a view of Oriental culture that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced. Implicit in this fabrication, writes Said, is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior.

Note: Orientalism paintings contain nudity. If that offends you, don’t read the article!

John Frederick Lewis, The Reception, 1873

John Frederick Lewis, The Reception, 1873

“Orientalism” refers to the Orient or East, in contrast to the Occident or West, and often, as seen by the West. Orient came into English from Middle French orient (the root word is oriēns, L). Oriēns has related meanings: the eastern part of the world, the part of the sky in which the sun rises, the east, the rising sun, daybreak, and dawn. Together with the geographical concepts of different ages, its reference of “eastern part” has changed. For example, when Chaucer wrote “That they conquered many regnes grete / In the orient, with many a fair citee” in Monk’s Tale (1375), the “orient” refers to countries lying immediately to the east of the Mediterranean or Southern Europe; while in Aneurin Bevan’s In Place of Fear (1952) this geographical term had already expanded to East Asia — “the awakening of the Orient under the impact of Western ideas”.

“Orientalism” is widely used in art to refer to the works of the many Western 19th-century artists, who specialized in “Oriental” subjects, often drawing on their travels to Western Asia. Artists as well as scholars were already described as “Orientalists” in the 19th century, especially in France, where the term, with a rather dismissive sense, was largely popularized by the critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary. Such disdain did not prevent the Société des Peintres Orientalistes (“Society of Orientalist Painters”) being founded in 1893, with Jean-Léon Gérôme as honorary president; the word was less often used as a term for artists in 19th century England.

Eugène Delacroix, The Women of Algiers, 1834, the Louvre, Paris

Eugène Delacroix, The Women of Algiers, 1834, the Louvre, Paris

Since the 18th century, Orientalist has been the traditional term for a scholar of Oriental studies; however the use in English of Orientalism to describe the academic subject of “Oriental studies” is rare; the Oxford English Dictionary cites only one such usage, by Lord Byron in 1812. The academic discipline of Oriental studies is now more often called Asian studies.

Design by Léon Cogniet for a ceiling decoration in the Louvre depicting the 1798 Egyptian Expedition

Design by Léon Cogniet for a ceiling decoration in the Louvre depicting the 1798 Egyptian Expedition

In 1978, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his influential and controversial book, Orientalism, which “would forever redefine” the word; he used the term to describe what he argued was a pervasive Western tradition, both academic and artistic, of prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East, shaped by the attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Said was critical of this scholarly tradition and of some modern scholars, particularly Bernard Lewis. Said’s Orientalism elaborates Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and Michel Foucault’s theorisation of discourse and relationship between knowledge and power. Said was mainly concerned with literature in the widest sense, especially French literature, and did not cover visual art and Orientalist painting. Others, notably Linda Nochlin, have tried to extend his analysis to art, “with uneven results”. Said’s work became one of the foundational texts of Postcolonialism or Postcolonial studies.

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The Moresque style of Renaissance ornament is a European adaptation of the Islamic arabesque that began in the late 15th century and was to be used in some types of work, such as bookbinding, until almost the present day. Early architectural use of motifs lifted from the Indian subcontinent has sometimes been called “Hindoo style”. One of the earliest examples is the façade of Guildhall, London (1788–1789). The style gained momentum in the west with the publication of views of India by William Hodges, and William and Thomas Daniell from about 1795. Examples of “Hindoo” architecture are Sezincote House (c. 1805) in Gloucestershire, built for a nabob returned from Bengal, and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

Anonymous Venetian orientalist painting, The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus, 1511, the Louvre. The deer with antlers in the foreground is not known ever to have existed in the wild in Syria.

Anonymous Venetian orientalist painting, The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus, 1511, the Louvre. The deer with antlers in the foreground is not known ever to have existed in the wild in Syria.

Turquerie, which began as early as the late 15th century, continued until at least the 18th century, and included both the use of “Turkish” styles in the decorative arts, the adoption of Turkish costume at times, and interest in art depicting the Ottoman Empire itself. Venice, the traditional trading partner of the Ottomans, was the earliest centre, with France becoming more prominent in the 18th century.

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Chinoiserie is the catch-all term for the fashion for Chinese themes in decoration in Western Europe, beginning in the late 17th century and peaking in waves, especially Rococo Chinoiserie, ca. 1740–1770. From the Renaissance to the 18th century, Western designers attempted to imitate the technical sophistication of Chinese ceramics with only partial success. Early hints of Chinoiserie appeared in the 17th century in nations with active East India companies: England (the British East India Company), Denmark (the Danish East India Company), the Netherlands (the Dutch East India Company) and France (the French East India Company). Tin-glazed pottery made at Delft and other Dutch towns adopted genuine blue-and-white Ming decoration from the early 17th century.

Algerian shops, by Louis Comfort Tiffany

Algerian shops, by Louis Comfort Tiffany

Early ceramic wares made at Meissen and other centers of true porcelain imitated Chinese shapes for dishes, vases and teawares. Pleasure pavilions in “Chinese taste” appeared in the formal parterres of late Baroque and Rococo German palaces, and in tile panels at Aranjuez near Madrid. Thomas Chippendale’s mahogany tea tables and china cabinets, especially, were embellished with fretwork glazing and railings, ca 1753–70. Sober homages to early Xing scholars’ furnishings were also naturalized, as the tang evolved into a mid-Georgian side table and squared slat-back armchairs that suited English gentlemen as well as Chinese scholars. Not every adaptation of Chinese design principles falls within mainstream “chinoiserie.” Chinoiserie media included imitations of lacquer and painted tin (tôle) ware that imitated japanning, early painted wallpapers in sheets, and ceramic figurines and table ornaments. Small pagodas appeared on chimneypieces and full-sized ones in gardens. Kew has a magnificent garden pagoda designed by Sir William Chambers. The Wilhelma (1846) in Stuttgart is an example of Moorish Revival architecture. Leighton House, built for the artist Lord Leighton, has a conventional facade but elaborate Arab-style interiors, including original Islamic tiles and other elements as well as Victorian Orientalizing work.

Frederick Goodall, A New Light in the Harem, 1884

Frederick Goodall, A New Light in the Harem, 1884

After 1860, Japonisme, sparked by the importing of Japanese woodblock prints, became an important influence in the western arts. In particular, many modern French artists such as Monet and Degas were influenced by the Japanese style. Mary Cassatt, an American artist who worked in France, used elements of combined patterns, flat planes and shifting perspective of Japanese prints in her own images. The paintings of James McNeill Whistler and his “Peacock Room” demonstrated how he used aspects of Japanese tradition and are some of the finest works of the genre. California architects Greene and Greene were inspired by Japanese elements in their design of the Gamble House and other buildings.
In architecture, Egyptian revival architecture was popular mostly in the early and mid-19th century, and Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture or Moorish Revival architecture, covering a variety of general Islamic or Indian features, in the later part of the century; “Saracenic” referred to styles from Arabic-speaking areas. Both were sometimes used in the Orient itself by colonial governments.

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Orientalist Art

Depictions of Islamic “Moors” and “Turks” (imprecisely named Muslim groups of southern Europe, North Africa and West Asia) can be found in Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art. In Biblical scenes in Early Netherlandish painting, secondary figures, especially Romans, were given exotic costumes that distantly reflected the clothes of the Near East. The Three Magi in Nativity scenes were an especial focus for this. In general art with Biblical settings would not be considered as Orientalist except where contemporary or historicist Middle Eastern detail or settings is a feature of works, as with some paintings by Gentile Bellini and others, and a number of 19th century works.

Sultan Mehmed II, attr. Gentile Bellini, 1480

Sultan Mehmed II, attr. Gentile Bellini, 1480

Renaissance Venice had a phase of particular interest in depictions of the Ottoman Empire in painting and prints. Gentile Bellini, who travelled to Constantinople and painted the Sultan, and Vittore Carpaccio were the leading painters. By then the depictions were more accurate, with men typically dressed all in white. The depiction of Oriental carpets in Renaissance painting sometimes draws from Orientalist interest, but more often just reflects the prestige these expensive objects had in the period.

Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789) visited Istanbul and painted numerous pastels of Turkish domestic scenes; he also continued to wear Turkish dress for much of the time when back in Europe. The ambitious Scottish 18th-century artist Gavin Hamilton found a solution to the problem of using modern dress, considered unheroic and inelegant, in history painting by using Middle Eastern settings with Europeans wearing local costume, as travellers were advised to do. His huge James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra (1758, now Edinburgh) elevates tourism to the heroic, with the two travellers wearing what look very like togas. Many travellers had themselves painted in exotic Eastern dress on their return, including Lord Byron, as did many who had never left Europe, including Madame de Pompadour. Byron’s poetry was highly influential in introducing Europe to the heady cocktail of Romanticism in exotic Oriental settings which was to dominate 19th century Oriental art.

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