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An Introduction to Orientalist Art

Orientalism is a term coined by the French during the nineteenth-century which was applied to the genre of art depicting subjects from Islamic countries.  Orientalist art was produced by mainly European artists from the nineteenth century. Many of these artists travelled for their work and inspiration to the Levant, the Middle-East, North Africa, Turkey and to Egypt.

Visiting the ‘Orient’ was made fashionable by mainly wealthy European tourists of the nineteenth-century. It was an age of discovery to exotic lands during this era of steam travel. Tourists would avidly buy souvenirs such as art, textiles , ceramics , and other artefacts and adorn their homes with them. The English artist Frederic Lord Leighton (1830-1896) had an “Arab Hall” built to his London home. There he housed his collection of ceramic tiles collected during visits to the Middle-East. The German Orientalist painter Ferdinand Max Bredt (1860-1921)  had his house and studio built in an Arabian style.

A number of Orientalist artists developed a respect and liking for Islamic culture and their people, and stayed for long periods of time or permanently in some countries.

The traditional style of Orientalist art was widely produced in the nineteenth-century up until the 1930’s. It was a style that would remain mostly unaffected by the great artistic movements of impressionism and modernism; with few exceptions by artists e.g. Jacques Majorelle (1866-1962)  and Henri Matisse (1869-1954).

The Market for Orientalist art

In the Nineteenth century collectors of Orientalist art abound as the genre was much in fashion. Wealthy tourists who visited the Orient wanted a visual souvenir to adorn their homes.  Royal families in Europe patronized the best Orientalists for works to exhibit in their palaces. The public in France could gaze and admire at Orientalist paintings at the Salon de Paris throughout the nineteenth-century and similarly at the Royal Academy in London.

Orientalist works of art sold well until the 1930’s. From the 1970’s the market for Orientalist art became buoyant. The genre gained renewed interest, and was promoted by specialist auction sales and by art galleries. 

In 1999 an Orientalist painting at auction achieved a record $3.2 million. From 2004 to 2008 the market for Orientalist art increased eight-fold.  By then, collectors from Europe and North America no longer dominated the market.  There was an increasing number of collectors from the Middle-East , and from other Arab regions including Turkey.  National art museums, particularly in the Gulf region, endowed their collections with the acquisition of fine Oriental paintings. The Sharjah Art Museum houses the oldest collection of nineteenth-century Orientalist art . The new Louvre Abu Dhabi museum has acquired Orientalist art.

So why the shift in interest in Orientalist art away from the West to in particular the Middle-East and North Africa?    There was little painting produced by local artists in the Arab speaking regions up until the end of the nineteenth-century.  Many collectors and museums therefore opt to acquiring the old Orientalist paintings made by Europeans.  These paintings to many, represent an important historical visual record of the regions’ landscapes and the daily life of their people, their customs, their professions, and their culture.   In general, collectors from these regions are attracted to the realist style of painting, an academic style that was widely practiced by many Orientalist artists.

The lure of the Orient and the first Orientalists

Both France and Britain produced the first generation of Orientalist artists and scholars.

The Emperor Napoleon’s unsuccessful invasion of Egypt (1798-1801) was an event that generated French interest in the art, science, history and architecture of the region. Egyptology and Oriental art was started.  Napoleon looted historical artefacts from Egypt. Buildings in France were built in the Egyptian revival style and the Empire style of furniture had ancient Egyptian motifs.  Twenty volumes of books were published by the French government on Egyptian antiquities Description de l’Egypte  (1809-1828). All things ‘Oriental’  became in vogue.

Between 1800-1812 over 70 paintings on compositions of Napoleon’s Egyptian military campaign were orchestrated by Vivant Denon who was Napoleon’s director-general of museums.  Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) was one of these commissioned artists. Algeria was invaded by the French in 1830 which led to its colonization and occupation until 1962.  From the outset of occupation, French artists were attracted to Algeria and to sketch and paint all aspects of this colourful and to their eyes mysterious and exotic country. One notable quote by the Orientalist artist Georges Clarin ( 1843-1919) summed up the attitude of the time, “ The colour of the East, the smell of the East, its remoteness, its mystery, its glory. Another life another dream of a life. “

The rise of Orientalism coincided with the Romantic era. Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was one of the major Romantic artists of France.  In 1832 Delacroix traveled to Morocco and Algeria. In these lands he was entranced by the people, the landscape and by the local dress. He even secretly made some sketches of women in Algiers.   These sketches led to his famous painting Women of Algiers in their Apartment.  This painting represented one of the first realistic depictions by a Western artist of a harem. The harem theme in Orientalist art was exploited, often inaccurately and erotically  by many future French Orientalists. 

Delacroix compared these exotic Islamic countries to a visual equivalent of ancient Rome and Greece. These travels had a major influence on Delacroix’s art as an Orientalist. He painted pictures of local people and dramatic pictures of lion hunts and Arab horses. 

Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) was under the influence of Delacroix, and  painted in the Romantic style. He undertook extensive travels to Algeria. In 1845 was commissioned to paint the Caliph of Constantine on horseback in Algeria. His Paris studio was cluttered with artefacts brought back from his travels to the Orient , many of which he used as subjects for his paintings.

Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) whose artistic legacy was primarily his portraits and history paintings, also painted Orientalist themes. Paintings such as  La Grande Odalisque and The Turkish Bath eroticized women and the ‘Orient’ to Westerners eyes. Through such images, the ‘Orient’ became to be perceived by some Europeans of the nineteenth-century as being mysterious, and exotic.  The allure of these distant lands suddenly became too great to ignore by an increasing number of mainly European artists and wealthy tourists.

In Britain, the development of Orientalist art progressed in the early nineteenth-century.  A British Arabic scholar Edward William Lane (1801-1876)  and artists John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) and David Roberts (1796-1864) were the main protagonists for British interest in all things Oriental.  Edward William Lane , fluent in Arabic, dressed as an Arab,  and lived for some years in Cairo (1825-1827). Lane compiled and published an important eight volume Arabic-English dictionary (Arabic-English Lexicon). He won fame in Britain for the publication of his books Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836) and for the translation of the Arabic classic One Thousand and One Nights (1842).

John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) lived in Cairo (1841-1850).  Like Lane, he immersed himself in Arabic culture, was attired in local dress and lived in a traditional house. His art depicts a realistic appreciation of Islamic architecture and customary dress. He idealized scenes in upper class Egyptian interiors without a Western outlook.

David Roberts (1796-1864) was a prominent British orientalist painter. He made extensive trips (1838-1840) to Egypt, Nubia, the Sinai, the Holy Land, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon. On his return to England, Roberts worked up his numerous watercolours and drawings into an important series of lithograph prints.  The prints were published by subscription to the public The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia (1842-1849).  Even Queen Victoria was a subscriber to these important prints. The prints represented for the first time accurate images of both the people and the historical sites of these regions.

The important Orientalists

French Orientalists

The leading first generation of French Orientalist artists were Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904).  In 1856 Gérôme visited Egypt and repeated travels to the Middle-East. There the peoples and landscapes inspired him to become an Orientalist painter. During his travels Gérôme would often make coloured oil sketches and work them up to finished paintings in his Paris studio. His style, though often meticulous in the architectural representation of Islamic buildings, also had a salacious side representing, at times , imaginary themes of harems, loosely dressed women and slave auctions. He had a commitment to veracity in his paintings , however, they were in the main devoid of feeling or emotion. Gérôme’s style of painting had an influence on many European Orientalists in the second half of the nineteenth-century. 

Other notable French Orientalist painters include Eugéne Fromentin (1820-1876) who had a prolific career as a successful Orientalist. He was considered as a sympathetic  and perceptive observer of the people and culture of the ‘Orient’.   In 1847 on a trip to Algeria he wrote to his father “I have now the right to paint in the Oriental style.  I don’t feel that, hitherto, anybody has truly understood that country.  I may be mistaken, but this trip, the new possibilities it has opened my mind to, the excellent lesson I have learnt in that country about light, colour, bold shapes, all that has given me a new impetus, has stimulated me, strengthened me.” Fromentin was so enamoured by the Orient that he also wrote some books about his travels.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin- Constant (1845-1902) was best known for his Oriental subjects and portraits. He lived for two years in Morocco.  Léon Francois Comerre (1850-1916) painted  idealized female portraits , Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) painted in the Romantic style and was a follower of Delacroix. Edouard Frederic Wilhelm Richter (1844-1913) painted idealized portraits of Arabic women often set in imaginary courtly scenes. Théodore Frère (1814-1888) was a prolific artist who in 1853 established a studio in Cairo and became the court painter there.

Gustave Achille Guillaumet (1840-1887) visited Algeria ten times between 1861 and 1867. Guillaumet did not aspire in his work to the  typical anecdotal and idealized compositions whose style many Orientalists followed. His works, by contrast,  show great human sensitivity and display the harshness of life and life’s daily toll of working people living in a desert region. His own sensitive nature gave speculation to the reason of his early death by suicide as a result of a love affair gone wrong. 

Henri Emilien Rousseau (1875-1933) painted scenes of Arab horsemen and falconry.  Etienne Dinet (1861-1929) travelled and lived in Algeria and converted to Islam. He is considered as one of the major French Orientalists of the later period along with Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) who adopted a more modernist style of painting.

Nasreddine Dinet (1861-1929) was a prominent French Orientalist painter of mainly genres scenes. From 1903 he spent most of his time in Algeria and he converted to Islam in 1913. After that later period, he painted mostly religious subjects. He also translated some Arabic literature into French.

Two French modernist painters whose work was influenced by trips made to the Orient were Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962).

It was in Morocco that Matisse had discovered a new application of colour in his art, the colour green in particular.  He took the advice of the artist Paul Gaugin to look no further for inspiration for colours than to Arabic carpets.  Unlike many of his predecessors, Matisse looked primarily to Islamic art for inspiration. Even the Moroccan gardens offered him a kaleidoscope of his applied use of abstract forms and colours in his compositions.  In this modernist approach to art, gone were the details and the sense of time and place.  Colourful abstract motifs and forms found in Arabic carpets and ceramic tiles were also key to Matisse’s development as a modernist and in the Orientalist phase of his art.

Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) who lived from 1917 in Marrakech Morocco, like Matisse,  drew inspiration from the garden. His greatest work was his garden in Marrakech.  In 1924 he painted the garden walls, fountains and other features of his villa in a shade of blue he termed Majorelle Blue.  This colour was similar as found in Moroccan tiles and from around the windows of local traditional buildings. . Majorelle’s paintings include compositions of landscapes, markets , and the daily life of Morocco.

British Orientalists

David Roberts (1796-1864) and John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) as described above were at the forefront of British Orientalists.  Other important artists of the period who painted some of their work in the Orientalist style were Edward Lear (1812-1888), Richard Dadd (1817-1886), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), and  Frederic Lord Leighton (1830-1896).    In terms of numbers, the British Orientalists were fewer than the French or the Austrians. Unlike some of the French Orientalists, however, the British style of composition was more representational, truthful of the people, architecture, and the landscapes of the regions. 

A successful British artist who painted exclusively in the Orientalist style was Frederick Goodall (1822-1904).  He visited Egypt several times and even camped with Bedouin tribesmen.  Goodall brought back to England an unusual souvenir of living Egyptian sheep and goats, animals he would represent in some of his paintings. Goodall’s infatuation with Egypt led to  170 of his paintings being exhibited at the Royal Academy over forty-six years. He received wide critical acclaim and earned a fortune from his paintings.

A number of leading British Orientalists were notable for their finely produced watercolours.

William James Müller (1812-1845) had a short yet important career as a successful landscape and genre painter.  He was motivated by the exotic subject matter of travels he made in the Near East.  His many fine watercolours were well regarded.

Frank Dillon (1823-1909) produced many watercolours of Islamic monuments , views of the Nile and associated ancient Egyptian monuments.  

Another outstanding watercolourist was the Scottish painter Arthur Melville (1855-1904). He traveled extensively between 1880 and 1882 to Turkey, Egypt, and Persia. Melville’s Orientalist work shows a strong sense of colour,  a style of painting which he developed in his travels to the Orient.

Hercules Brabazon Brabazon (1821-1906) produced literally thousands of watercolours in his lifetime.  Typical compositions were of landscapes , people, and buildings in European countries and the Orient. He was an extensive traveler and had lived in Tangiers from 1868 to 1884. His painting has a beautiful ephemeral style.

Italian Orientalists

Alberto Passini (1826-1899) painted Orientalists subjects in a colourful late-Romantic style.  He paid meticulous attention to the accurate representation of figures and traditional buildings.

Stefano Ussi (1822-1901) and Cesare Biseo (1843-1909) who both accompanied an Italian diplomatic delegation to Morocco in 1875, were successful Orientalists.

Gustavo Simoni (1846-1926) was particularly known for producing detailed watercolour paintings of market scenes, carpet sellers and other Arab tradesmen.

Hermann David Salomon Corrodi (1844-1905) was a major Italian Orientalist whose patrons included the British Royal family.  His subject material included Egyptian landscapes often featuring the Nile, ancient buildings, market and street scenes.  His works are characterized by their invention, atmosphere, illuminating effects and colours.

Rubens Santoro (1859-1942) produced sensitively painted oil paintings of people in their localities. Fabio Fabbi (1861-1946) painted in a French orientalist style, often known for his subject depictions of harems and slave markets.

Fabio Fabbi (1861-1946) painted in a French orientalist style, often known for his subject depictions of harems and slave markets.

Austrian and German Orientalists

The Austrian school of Oriental art was important and influential for its realism.

The major artists of the period were Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935) and Rudolf Ernst (1854-1932) both of whom had studios in Paris.  These artists developed a photo-realistic style of painting. They paid meticulous attention in their paintings to their subject matter, such as Islamic architecture and mosques, Palace guards, tradesmen , fabrics , ceramics and other artefacts.

Leopold Carl Müller (1834-1892) was one of the leading Austrian Orientalist painters of the nineteenth-century. His paintings are considered among the principle examples of the 'realist' school of European Orientalist painting.  Müller painted mostly portraits and landscapes. He was inspired by his visits to Islamic countries, and he did not paint a transfigured image of the Orient.  He made his first visit to Egypt in 1873 and continued to travel to Egypt until 1886, often selling his work to affluent British tourists who spent their winters there. During his stays in Egypt, Müller painted en plein air numerous sketches and studies from nature as well as portraits. On his return home to Vienna he would use this material to help him create his many paintings.

Charles Wilda (1854-1907) was a pupil of Leopold Carl Müller (1834-1892). Wilda settled some years in Cairo and kept a studio there. He would do paintings of local people and tradesmen, the traditional buildings and markets.  Wilda would occasionally sell his paintings to wealthy British tourists on their visits to Egypt. Wilda’s use of colours, attention to detail and photo-realistic style of painting made him one of the prized Austrian Orientalists. The Austrian Kaizer Frans Joseph I in 1895 purchased Wilda’s oil painting “Arabian Fortune Teller” for 3500 Kronen. The amount paid was the equivalent of purchasing 1 kg of gold at that time!

Rudolf Swoboda (1859-1914) like Wilda also studied under Leopold Carl Müller (1834-1892). Swoboda became a well-known Orientalist and was even commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1886 to travel to India and paint portraits of groups of artisans.

Gustav Bauernfeind ( 1848-1904)  was considered as one of Germany’s leading Orientalist artist. He made numerous trips to the Levant and settled in Jerusalem in 1898.  The paintings by Bauernfeind are intricate and detailed representations of Jerusalem and The Holy Land , the landscapes, buildings, markets and people. 

Ernst Karl Eugen Koerner (1846-1927) painted atmospheric scenes of Egypt and the ancient monuments.

Adolf Schreyer (1828-1899) made trips in 1856 to Egypt, Syria, and in 1861 to Algiers. Schreyer’s oriental paintings are usually expressive and colourful scenes of Arab horsemen.  They display tremendous power and equine beauty.

Ferdinand Max Bredt (1860-1921) traveled extensively to the Orient. He painted usually female subjects in interiors and courtyards. He liked Islamic architecture, and his German house and studio was built in an Arabian style.

Georg Macco (1863-1933) was a leading German Orientalist artist. He undertook numerous journeys to North Africa and to the Middle-East.  There he found inspiration and motifs for his paintings that eventually made him one of the most sought-after German Orientalist.  His works impress with their expression, colour,  light effects,  detail and mood.

Spanish Orientalists

Antonio Maria Fabres y Costa (1854-1938) a famous Catalan painter was known for his realism in art. He painted many portraits in the Orientalist genre.  Similarly , another Catalan painter who was a follower of the realist style and inspired by the Romantics was Marià Fortuny (1838-1874). He painted with great veracity Orientalist themes  such as  portraits and Odalisques.

José Navarro Llorens (1867-1923) was influenced by some of Spains greatest painters of the day such as Marià Fortuny and Joaquin Sorolla.  He travelled to Morocco where he focused on the Orientalist genre on a range of subjects.  His Orientalist scenes were often composed using short brush strokes in the impressionistic style. The bright Moroccan sun illuminated his palette offering works which demonstrated  his aptitude for a vivid use of colour.  

American Orientalists

There were comparatively fewer American artists compared to the Europeans who specialized in the Orientalist genre of art.  The pioneers were Edwin Lord Weeks (1849-1903) and Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928). 

Weeks was a pupil of the French leading Orientalist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). He travelled extensively to Morocco, Persia, Egypt, and India. His artistic style was elaborately detailed and accurate, often depicting people in traditional dress and associated historic buildings.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) was also a pupil of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). His paintings made after an extensive trip to Egypt in 1873-1874 brought him immediate attention as a leading Orientalist artist of his generation.

Important American painters who drew inspiration from the Orient in some of their paintings were John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933).

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), a leading portrait painter, was a great painter-traveler in his lifetime, painting and sketching in all countries which he visited. His oeuvre is vast and his Orientalist works demonstrate his appeal for the exotic and colours of the Orient. He visited Egypt, Syria, Palestine and in particular admired the nomadic Bedouin. His study of ancient Egyptian art was inspirational to his great mural for the Boston Public Library, Triumph of Religion. He chose to paint scenes of daily life including Arab men and women. Unlike many Orientalist painters, he did not embellish his pictures with romantic and fantastical subject matter.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was primarily known for his designs in furniture, lamps, stained glass and jewelry. He trained first as a painter and persuaded by the French landscape painter Léon Belly, in 1870 he traveled to Egypt and North Africa.  The Arabic cultures were an influence to Tiffany’s designs, in particular stained glass and glass lamps.  Tiffany was inspired by the colours and light of the East. In an address to the Rembrandt Club of Brooklyn, he said “When I first had a chance to travel to the East and to paint where the people and the building are clad in beautiful hues, the pre-eminence of colour in the world was brought forcibly to my attention.“

(MONDA Gallery is grateful to Dr. Matthew Honan for authoring An Introduction to Orientalism)

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