Arabian Nights

John Frederick Lewis

So after a little break I return with a post on Orientalist art – always a contentious issue. Orientalism emerged at a time when European countries – France and Britain in particular – began asserting their dominance over North African countries, the Middle East, and India. Most Europeans would never have an opportunity to see these countries and consequently they became something of a fascination for many a European mind. Artists and writers began to illustrate these exotic lands, depicting beautiful women draped languidly across silken bolsters, or sitting nude beside a communal harem bath without any hint of self-conciousness. Some of the artists never set foot in the East, others (male at least) would never be permitted access to a sacred harem.  Thus, this is stuff of the imagination.  There were of course female accounts of life within these places, but they were rather more tempered than what we see in the visual portrayals.

The bustling market place was another popular theme, as was the depiction of the splendid and deeply artistic architecture of the East. Certain artists were exceptionally adept at this latter genre, such as John Frederick Lewis.  The East was seen as the female counterpart to the masculine West; the necessary ying to the West’s yang, the missing piece of the puzzle. Hence, it was depicted as dreamlike; sumptiously, delightfully, feminine; irrational, and chaotic but sensuous. One must remember that Orientalism was at its height during the rather oppressive Victorian era, where women generally dressed in claustrophobic corseted, high-necked attire and were expected to adhere to strict behavioural codes. In contrast, these Eastern women wore luxurious, colourful, loosely fitted and diaphanous clothing.  Rather than perching on the edge of hard back chairs, they (apparently) spent their days lazily wiling away the time, lying across heaped up cushions whilst dappled light poured through the latticed shutters, dancing across the marble floors. Slave girls would bring them sweets, fruits and tea, and fan them in the heat of the midday sun. Within the Victorian context the attraction for the imaginative portrayal of the East is perhaps understandable. The western world was probably looking for some escape from its own self-imposed rationality, imperious nature and puritanism. Some Orientalist art does step into the realms of voyeurism, reducing these women (who happen to be white to suit French tastes of the time) to objects of desire. The art of Gerome, Ingres and Delacroix (all French) illustrate this point.

It was Edward Said in the 1970s who famously and vehemently opposed Orientalism, going so far as to ignorantly accuse all orientalists, or those interested in the East, of racism.  Until recently it was seen as taboo not to agree with Said, perhaps for fear of being placed in the same category as the Orientalists. Though his work is important, his approach is strongly biased and often academically unsound. The artists in question were all individual personalities. They had different reasons for painting the ‘Orient’; some, like Lewis, came to show a preference for the East. Whilst in Cairo, he chose to live and dress in the manner of the wealthy locals, albeit with only one wife. Other zealously Christian artists went to the East with a missionary purpose. Many were just seeking to make a living from what was a popular artistic genre. Much Orientalist art is relatively respectful and beautiful, and of important historical and documentary value, so much so, that today, Middle Eastern collectors are crazy about buying art from this period.

John Frederick Lewis

Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Thomas Francis Dicksee

David Roberts

Gustav Bauernfiend

Sir Joshua Reynolds


Eugene Delacroix



Rudolph Ernst

Rudolph Ernst

Eastern Beauty

John Frederick Lewis

Frederick Arthur Bridgman

The Hosh Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch, Cairo by John Frederick Lewis

John Frederick Lewis

~ by laxshmirose on June 26, 2010.

5 Responses to “Arabian Nights”

  1. What a beautiful post! I would rather think that orientalism is not only a historical moment and analyse it as a movement that was important and applicable for that time when it was made. There is still a strong fascination about east from western minds like in that, and maybe the east got much westernized, urbanized, industrialized or globalized before most western could reach what they have dreamed to see and experienced, so that this art can be still appreciated with enchantment.

  2. Since antiquity, the Orient to Europeans was a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and remarkable experiences…landscapes of ancient sites, the Holy Land, the River Nile, the desert, caravans and encampments, the vibrant life of cities, baths and odalisques – depicted by late 18th- through 20th-century painters.
    the issues raised by the concept of Orientalism as kinds of awareness – esthetic, social, economic, religious and historical – in particular the attempts to evoke an exotic, sensual world and depict unfamiliar terrain, light and color as well as unusual customs and costumes.

    In contrast to the impassioned vein in Delacroix’s Orientalist paintings, there were also the almost documentary compositions of Gérôme on display. His meticulously detailed genre and history paintings – of which 13 were included in the show – record with accuracy the contemporary appearance of scenes and sites. His interest in the Near East, spurred by repeated visits to Egypt and Asia Minor from 1856 to 1875, extends to such subjects as mosques, bazaars, religious rituals, the hunt and bath, and the mysterious, and misunderstood, women’s quarters, or harems – a subject that fascinated the West. One example of this is Gérôme’s Harem in the Kiosk, c. 1874-1880 (Private collection, Houston) which presents an outing by Ottoman women and children with a recognizable silhouette of the Golden Horn in Istanbul, a city that Gérôme was to visit three times
    The evocative traces of ancient civilization captured the attention of Orientalist artists and Islam intrigued them.One of the masterpieces of Orientalist painting, Pilgrims Going to Mecca, painted by Leon-Adolphe-August Belly (1827-1877) in 1861, focuses on a central duty of Islam, the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) – and the most characteristic landscape of the Near East – the desert
    Encompassing many different painting styles and political leanings, the only generalization that can be made about the Orientalist is that they were extremely diverse. One common thread unites them; all who went were changed by the experience.As great art has the power to change the lives of the those who create it; so it has the power to change the lives of those of us who view it.
    The detail in paintings seems almost photographic, and in fact many of the Orientalists used photography as a means to record detail accurately.
    the Orientalist movement spanned over a century. Artists like Gerome and Renoir came a generation after Delacroix and Gleyre who in their turn had followed artists such as Horace Vernet. Because of this there was a continual process of rediscovering the Middle East. Also, interest in Orientalism came in waves rather than a continuous flow. Each new generation of artists were to make their mark on the scene.
    With time the Orientalist movement died out; not from any lack of interest but rather that other recording mediums took over. Photography was an easier skill to learn and was inherently more accurate. As the art world switched from realism to experimentation the role of the artist in society waned, and the artist was replaced by the photographer, the cinematographer.

    thank you for this amazing site ‘art-mundus’…all topics truly appreciated.

  3. Certainly humans are more inclined to live in their imagination rather than see things as they actually are, a tendency which has been honed to a fine art by elitists in all ‘progressive’ world civilisations.

  4. Thank you very much for your fascinating comments:

    Avdhut: No doubt we ought to live more in reality, but dreaming, or the imagination can be seen as a form of seeking for something that is missing in us. Something that our souls crave. Just as myth and fairytale touches humans at a deeply subconscious level, and as such can tell us a lot about man. The Tate catalogue for ‘The Lure of the East’exhibition includes several essays discussing both sides of the coin. I recommend it.

    ‘Not only can we not condemn the nineteenth-century British artists as Middle Eastern ‘aggressors’, but we can go further and state that their suppressed dreamy side was nurtured by the conquered. And this means that even when sheer force tilts the balance to one party, the weaker side has still a cultural or spiritual potential to share.’ (Mernissi, 2008: 38)

    Nmirel: thank for your insightful comment! And thanks for succinctly demonstrating the diversity of Orientalist artists: It is almost impossible to compare Gerome with Matisse, or Ingres with Lewis… I like the way in which you illustrate how human beings are not static creatures but susceptible to change when introduced into a new culture or experience. And in itself this disproves Said’s argument.

    There are of course certain paintings which are quite uncomfortable to look at since they clearly show how many in the west saw themselves as vastly superior to their eastern counterparts. (See Ingres ‘Turkish Bath’) Nonetheless simultaneously many delighted in the idea of the East, a place which may have represented a spiritual and sensual freedom to them. As you have so nicely put it, the problem with Gerome is that his paintings are almost scientific in their detail. Unlike the more impressionistic Lewis or even Delacroix, his female subjects appear uncomfortably vunerable and exposed – objects rather than personalities.

    Thanks Thomaz, as always 🙂 Eastern collectors are so interested in these paintings, partly because they depict important buildings, monuments and customs that have long since disappeared. Even in the early 19th century there are cases of sultans employing British Orientalist artists! The balance of the world may still be precariously unstable, but we can indeed enjoy the enchanting quality of these beautiful paintings without getting involved in past politics.

  5. Do please find at works by Antonio Fuentes ( Tangiers, 1905 – 1995 ), one of the greatest orientalist of the last century.

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