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The western fantasy

During the early 1800’s the world was getting smaller. The recently invented steam ship made intercontinental travel more predictable, and colonial expansion by Europe’s imperial powers was in full swing. Napoleon’s botched an invasion of Egypt and Syria, France would soon invade Algeria, and the crumbling Ottoman Empire left much of the Middle East and Northern Africa vulnerable to Europe’s expanding colonization. In this dawn of globalization an art movement emerged mirroring the political interest in these ‘exotic’ locations, and the visual vocabulary of Islamic architecture, textiles and culture became a fixation for an entire generation of academic artists.

In a strictly formal sense, orientalist art is a fascinating juxtaposition. Emerging at the height of the French and English academic art world, most orientalist artists were rigorously trained, applying a renaissance-worth of rendering technique and tradition to create startlingly life-like paintings. And after centuries of classical history painting, Christian religious art and portraits of the European elite, the ornamental architecture, patterned textiles and rich environments of the orient were a novel change. At its best, orientalist art feels like a fusion of European technique and Arab-Islamic subjects.

And there is a true documentary spirit to be found in many orientalist works—artists like Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Ludwig Deutsch traveled to Morocco, Algiers, Istanbul and Cairo, sometimes staying months or years to fully capture the uniquely stark light and color of these places. The invention of the camera also played an enormous role in the development of orientalist art, allowing artists to document their travels and paint from reference on their return to their European studios.

So why does discussing Orientalist art come with a feeling of foreboding? In 1978, Edward Said, professor of literature at Colombia University, wrote a book that laid bare the discomforting foundation of the Orientalist movement. Simply titled Orientalism, Said’s book is now recognized as one of the foundational texts of postcolonial theory, and it is a brilliant, gnarly read.

The term Orientalism has its roots in the latin word Oriēns, meaning ‘the eastern part of the world’ — as opposed to the Occident, or western world. And this dualism is precisely what makes Orientalism such a difficult and problematic movement. Said defines Orientalism as “a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western Experience.” And here is the crux of the issue — Orientalism may look like a depiction of middle eastern and North African cultures, people and landscapes, but Orientalism is a construction of the Western imagination.

Cultural appropriation is as old as human history, but the orientalist genre is rife with a particularly greedy, exploitative version of appropriation—which Said called a surrogate for underground western desires. Its popular themes read like a playbook of white male fantasies—harems of languid, available women. Slave markets where more young women are bought and sold, and cryptic, unassailable masculinity ruling in splendorous palaces. Said argues that orientalist art is problematic because it is created by artists that, however noble their intentions, are influenced by their vantage point—that of a western observer in an age of predatory colonialism.

And so we arrive at the contradiction of orientalist art: a movement that explicitly divides us from them. Orientalism claims to offer a voyeur’s window into the decadence and exploration of the exotic, sexualized world of the Orient. But Orientalism was never about the Orient, it was a mirror to held up to the dark exploitative fantasies of the western world.

Reed Enger, "Orientalism, The western fantasy," in Obelisk Art History, Published October 30, 2019; last modified October 30, 2019, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/industrial-revolution/orientalism/.

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Revolt in Cairo on 21 October 1798

Anne-Louis Girodet, 1810

The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan

Eugène Delacroix, 1824-1826

The Death of Sardanapalus

Eugène Delacroix, 1827

The Women of Algiers

Eugène Delacroix, 1834

Odalisque with Slave

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1839

Man riding a camel in the desert during a sand storm

Augustus Osborne Lamplough, 1860

Prayer in the Mosque of Amr

Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1871

Profile of Moroccan Man

José Tapiro y Baro, 1876


Osman Hamdi Bey, 1878

The Snake Charmer

Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1879

The Doorway

James McNeill Whistler, 1880

Young Woman Reading

Osman Hamdi Bey, 1880

The Berber Bride

José Tapiro y Baro, 1883

The Inspection

Ludwig Deutsch, 1883

A Black Woman

Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz, 1884

Tangerian Girl

José Tapiro y Baro, 1891

The Palace Guard

Ludwig Deutsch, 1892

The Darcawi Holy Man of Marrakech

José Tapiro y Baro, 1895

A rider in the desert

Augustus Osborne Lamplough, 1900

An Arab on a camel surveying the desert at dusk

Augustus Osborne Lamplough, 1900

Cairo at dusk, Egypt

Augustus Osborne Lamplough, 1900

Coastline of the Isle of Gozo

Augustus Osborne Lamplough, 1900

Egypt: banks of the Nile

Augustus Osborne Lamplough, 1900

Man Wearing a Burnous

José Tapiro y Baro, 1900

Parache, the Dancer

José Tapiro y Baro, 1895-1900

The Bride

José Tapiro y Baro, 1900

The Tribute

Ludwig Deutsch, c. 1900

The Smoker

Ludwig Deutsch, 1903

The Chess Players

Ludwig Deutsch, 1904

The Scribe

Ludwig Deutsch, 1904

The Morning Prayer

Ludwig Deutsch, 1906

Arabs in the desert at dusk; and A felucca on the Nile

Augustus Osborne Lamplough, 1911

Moroccan Man

José Tapiro y Baro, 1913

The Sphinx and the Pyramids

Augustus Osborne Lamplough, 1919
Next Movement

Hudson River School

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