A heightened interest in foreign cultures throughout the nineteenth century led to the popularity of European art and literature of Oriental themes. With the establishment of new colonial territories and military conquests in North Africa and the Middle East, a number of artists began traveling to lands that they had previously only been able to imagine from the fictional tales of the Arabian Nights and plays (such as Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra and Byron’s Sardanapalus). The results of these journeys was an incredible array of paintings, sketches, drawings, prints, and photography of Oriental lands, peoples, and cultures, and this study of non-Western cultures eventually earned the name of “Orientalism.” Although many artists did visit the locations they depicted, their images are frequently a mix of both fact and fantasy, drawing on scenes and moments witnessed abroad as well as their preconceived notions of what an exotic, sensual, and barbaric non-Western world should look like.
Four French Orientalists:
Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)
Perhaps the most famous of the Orientalist painters, Delacroix traveled to Morocco and Algeria in 1832 as part of an ambassadorial delegation to the Moroccan sultanate. Though Delacroix had treated non-Western subjects in paintings previous to these travels (most notably the 1824 painting The Death of Sardanapalus based on Byron’s play Sardanapalus), Delacroix’s three-month journey to North Africa had a profound effect on his art and the cadre of Orientalist painting.
The opportunity to experience the exotic first-hand was an opportunity Delacroix embraced fully, filling several notebooks with hundreds of drawings and notes of the North African scenes and subjects he encountered. However, Delacroix’s journey is distinguished by the three-day stop in Algiers where he was allegedly able to gain access to a private Moorish residence and sketch its female inhabitants. As one of the only artists to gain entry to this private space typically inaccessible to Westerners, Delacroix’s painting Women of Algiers in their Apartment, based on the sketches from this visit, was perceived as an authentic and believable image of the Oriental harem. While the colors, decoration, and delicate details of the apartment and its beautiful inhabitants showcase Delacroix’s passion for his subject and attention to his art, studies of his sketches, journals, and accounts of the journey indicate that this image is a combination of both material from Delacroix’s documentary journey and his imaginative fascination of the exotic, combining to manifest as an Orientalist combination of fact and fantasy.
More works by Delacroix: Jewish Wedding In Morocco (1837) and Cleopatra and the Peasant (1838)
Jean-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
A great Classical and Orientalist painter, despite the fact that he never traveled to the Orient, Jean-Dominique Ingres’ many erotic images of Oriental women are some of the best-known images of Orientalist painting.
The 1862 painting The Turkish Bath is one such work, a highly sensuous image of female nudes lounging in a bath house. The European appearance of the women and their peculiar poses–playing musical instruments, dancing, and taking tea creates an unusual bath scene bearing no resemblance to the large public Turkish baths, or hammams, that were popular during the nineteenth century and are still in use by many parts of the Arab and Muslim world today. The women’s fanciful and unneccessary headdresses and other “Orientalizing” details such as the Turkish tea set and pillows at the forefront of the images are clues to the intended non-Western setting of the unrealistic images. The perspective of the image completes the voyeuristic effect of this foreign fantasy, with the viewer literally “peeking” in to the otherwise private space of the bath house inaccessible to Western travelers.
Also by Ingres: Grande Odalisque (1814) and Odalisque with Female Slave (1842)
Alexandre Gabriel Decamps (1820-1876)
Commissioned to create a painting of the 1827 battle of Navarino following the Greek war of independence, Decamps was one of the earliest painter-travelers who left European soil to paint the landscape, people, and places across the Mediterranean. After visiting Greece and Asia Minor in 1828 he set up a studio in Turkey, staying several months to sketch images of street life and observe everyday reality. This particularly detailed etching of a Turkish guardhouse is a version of the subject richly depicted in the painting, Turkish Guardhouse on the Smyrna-Magnesia Road (Musée Condé, Chantilly).
Decamps’ etching depicts a group of men lounging in the shade of a guardhouse. Dust and camels in the far left suggest a busy street, and the varied traditional garb of the men—long robes and cloaks, tassels, and turbans wrapped in different styles—indicate the diversity of travelers along Turkish trade routes. Though the sketch highlights the ethnic and cultural diversity of Near Eastern trade routes, it also confirms certain European stereotypes of an exotic yet dangerous Orient. The relaxed posture of many of these figures suggests a level of complacency among the guardhouse occupants. The fierce glare of the central figure leaning on the ledge and weapons scattered about the guardhouse serve as a reminder that the scene could quickly turn violent.
Eugene Fromentin (1820-1876)
The painting Five Standing Arabs, painted shortly before Eugene Fromentin’s death, is among the last in a large collection of works showcasing the artist’s lifelong interest and commitment to painting Oriental subjects. Fromentin’s paintings of North African men are some of the most well-observed representations of the Oriental male. Although there is no known painting with which this sketch has been associated, it resembles another Fromentin painting that shows a similar group of Arabs observing a horse for sale in the Atlas Mountains.
An author as well as an artist, Eugene Fromentin traveled to North Africa three times during his lifetime. Details and descriptions of North Africa in Fromentin’s travel narratives, A Summer in the Sahara and A Year in the Sahel, suggest the devoted traveler lent himself completely to understanding and recording North African lands and cultures. The detailed faces of the five men and their varied dress, suggests the artist’s intent to depict the diversity of the North African population and culture that he so admired.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
Several decades after the four French Orientalists described above were at their height; the Western artistic interest in the Arab world remained strong. Matisse also explored oriental themes and subjects in his work, and he spent seven months in Morocco from 1912 to 1913. During that time he produced about 24 paintings and numerous drawings. His frequent orientalist topics of later paintings, such as odalisques, can be traced to this period.
Also by Matisse: Odalisque (1923) and Odalisque with a Tambourine (1925-26)
Other Nineteenth Century Orientalists
Jean-Antoine Gros (1771-1835)
The Battle of Aboukir (1806)
Horace Vernet (1789-1863)
The Massacre of Mamelukes in the Citadel of Cairo (1819)
Henri Regnault (1843-1871)
Summary Judgment under the Moorish Kings of Granada (1870)
Georges Clairin (1843-1919)
Entering the Harem (1870)