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By Dr. Nancy Demerdash
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Grand Odalisque, 1814, oil on canvas (Musée du Louvre, Paris) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The origins of Orientalism

Snake charmers, carpet vendors, and veiled women may conjure up ideas of the Middle East, North Africa, and West Asia, but they are also partially indebted to Orientalist fantasies. To understand these images, we have to understand the concept of Orientalism, beginning with the word “Orient” itself. In its original medieval usage, the "Orient" referred to the “East,” but whose “East” did this Orient represent? East of where?
Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Sultan Mehmet II, 1480, oil on canvas, 69.9 x 52.1 cm (The National Gallery, London)
We understand now that this designation reflects a Western European view of the "East," and not necessarily the views of the inhabitants of these areas. We also realize today that the label of the “Orient” hardly captures the wide swath of territory to which it originally referred: the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. These are at once distinct, contrasting, and yet interconnected regions. Scholars often link visual examples of Orientalism alongside the Romantic literature and music of the early nineteenth century, a period of rising imperialism and tourism when Western artists traveled widely to the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. We now understand that the world has been interconnected for much longer than we initially acknowledged and we can see elements of Orientalist representation much earlier—for example, in religious objects of the Crusades, or Gentile Bellini’s painting of the Ottoman sultan (ruler) Mehmed II (above), or in the arabesques (flowing s-shaped ornamental forms) of early modern textiles.

The politics of Orientalism

In his groundbreaking 1978 text Orientalism, the late cultural critic and theorist Edward Saïd argued that a dominant European political ideology created the notion of the Orient in order to subjugate and control it. Saïd explained that the concept embodied distinctions between "East" (the Orient) and "West" (the Occident) precisely so the "West" could control and authorize views of the "East." For Saïd, this nexus of power and knowledge enabled the "West" to generalize and misrepresent North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Though his text has itself received considerable criticism, the book nevertheless remains a pioneering intervention. Saïd continues to influence many disciplines of cultural study, including the history of art.

Representing the “Orient”

As art historian Linda Nochlin argued in her widely read essay, “The Imaginary Orient,” from 1983, the task of critical art history is to assess the power structures behind any work of art or artist. [1] Following Nochlin’s lead, art historians have questioned underlying power dynamics at play in the artistic representations of the "Orient," many of them from the nineteenth century. In doing so, these scholars challenged not only the ways that the “West” represented the “East,” but they also complicate the long held misconception of a unidirectional westward influence. Similarly, these scholars questioned how artists have represented people of the Orient as passive or licentious subjects.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Snake Charmer, c. 1879, oil on canvas (The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts)
For example, in the painting The Snake Charmer and His Audience, c. 1879, the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme’s depicts a naked youth holding a serpent as an older man plays the flute—charming both the snake and their audience. Gérôme constructs a scene out of his imagination, but he utilizes a highly refined and naturalistic style to suggest that he himself observed the scene. In doing so, Gérôme suggests such nudity was a regular and public occurrence in the "East."
Henriette Browne, A Visit: A Harem Interior, c. 1860, oil on canvas, 29.5 x 40 cm
In contrast, artists like Henriette Browne and Osman Hamdi Bey created works that provide a counter-narrative to the image of the "East" as passive, licentious or decrepit. In A Visit: Harem Interior, Constantinople, 1860, the French painter Browne represents women fully clothed in harem scenes. Likewise, the École des Beaux Arts-trained Ottoman painter Osman Hamdi Bey depicts Islamic scholarship and learnedness in A Young Emir Studying, 1878.
Osman Hamdi Bey, A Young Emir Studying, 1878, oil on canvas (Louvre Abu Dhabi)

Orientalism: fact or fiction?

Orientalist paintings and other forms of material culture operate on two registers. First, they depict an “exotic” and therefore racialized, feminized, and often sexualized culture from a distant land. Second, they simultaneously claim to be a document, an authentic glimpse of a location and its inhabitants, as we see with Gérôme's detailed and naturalistic style. In The Snake Charmer and His Audience, Gérôme constructs this layer of exotic "truth" by including illegible, faux-Arabic tilework in the background. Nochlin pointed out that many of Gérôme’s paintings worked to convince their audiences by carefully mimicking a "preexisting Oriental reality.” [2]
Surprisingly, the invention of photography in 1839 did little to contribute to a greater authenticity of painterly and photographic representations of the "Orient" by artists, Western military officials, technocrats, and travelers. Instead, photographs were frequently staged and embellished to appeal to the Western imagination. For instance, the French Bonfils family, in studio photographs, situated sitters in poses with handheld props against elaborate backdrops to create a fictitious world of the photographer’s making.
Bonfils family, Young Woman from Lebanon in Party Dress, undated, albumen print, 10 3/4 x 8 1/4 inches (courtesy of McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, The University of Tennessee)
In Orientalist secular history paintings (narrative moments from history), Western artists portrayed disorderly and often violent battle scenes, creating a conception of an "Orient" that was rooted in incivility. The common figures and locations of Orientalist genre paintings (scenes of everyday life)—including the angry despot, licentious harem, chaotic medina, slave market, or the decadent palace—demonstrate a blend of pseudo-ethnography based on descriptions of first-hand observation and outright invention. These paintings created visions of a decaying mythic "East" inhabited by a controllable people without regard to geographic specificity. Artists operating in this vein include Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and others. In the visual discourses of Orientalism, we must systematically question any claim to objectivity or authenticity.

Global imperialism and consumerism

We also must consider the creation of an "Orient" as a result of imperialism, industrial capitalism, mass consumption, tourism, and settler colonialism in the nineenth-century. In Europe, trends of cultural appropriation included a consumerist “taste” for materials and objects, like porcelain, textiles, fashion, and carpets, from the Middle East and Asia. For instance, Japonisme was a trend of Japonese-inspired decorative arts, as were Chinoiserie (Chinese-inspired) andTurquerie (Turkish-inspired). The ability of Europeans to purchase and own these materials, to some extent confirmed imperial influence in those areas.
Palace of the Khedive, L'Exposition universelle de 1867 illustrée, Paris, p. 56 (Bavarian State Library, Munich)
The phenomenon of
and cultural-national pavilions (beginning with the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 and continuing into the twentieth century) also supported the goals of colonial expansion. Like the decorative arts, they fostered the notion of the "Orient" as an entity to be consumed through its varied pre-industrial craft traditions.
We see this continually in the architectural imitations built on the grounds of these fairs, that sought to provide both spectacle and authenticity to the fair goer. For instance, at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the designers of the Egyptian section Jacques Drévet and E. Schmitz topped what was supposed to represent the residential khedival (Ottoman Empire ruler's) palace with a dome typical of mosque architecture. [3] Yet, they also attached to this building a barn (not typical of a khedival palace) that housed imported donkeys brought in to give visitors the impression of reality. [4] The fairs objectified the otherness of non-Western peoples, cultures, and practices.
Orientalism constructs cultural, spatial, and visual mythologies and stereotypes that are often connected to the geopolitical ideologies of governments and institutions. The influence of these mythologies has impacted the formation of knowledge and the process of knowledge production. In this light, as Saïd and Nochlin remind us, when we see Orientalist works like Gérôme's Snake Charmer, we should ask what idea of the "Orient" we see, and why?
[1] Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient,” Art in America, vol. IXXI, no. 5 (1983), pp. 118–31.
[2] Ibid., 37.
[3] Zeynep Çelik, Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth-Century World’s Fairs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
[4] Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
Additional Resources
Roger Benjamin, Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa 1880–1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Zeynep Çelik, “Colonialism, Orientalism, and the Canon” The Art Bulletin 78, no. 2 (June 1996): pp. 202–205.
Zeynep Çelik, Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth-Century World’s Fairs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
Oleg Grabar, “Europe and the Orient: An Ideologically Charged Exhibition.” Muqarnas VII (1990): pp. 1–11.
Robert Irwin, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2006).
J.M. MacKenzie, Orientalism: History, Theory, and the Arts (Manchester, NY: Manchester University Press, 1995).
Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient,” A. America, IXXI/5 (1983): pp. 118–31.
Edward Saïd, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978).
Edward Saïd, “Orientalism Reconsidered,” Race & Class 27, no. 2 (Autumn 1985): pp. 1–15.
Nicholas Tromans, ed. The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting (London: Tate, 2008).
Stephen Vernoit and D. Behrens-Abouseif, eds. Islamic Art in the Nineteenth Century: Tradition, Innovation, and Eclecticism (Leiden; Boston: Brill Publishers, 2006).
Essay by Dr. Nancy Demerdash

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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
    Who says the depictions of the people and culture of "the Orient" is licentious and decadent? That interpretation depends on the viewer, and in particular the perspective and possibly agenda of the art critic. Were the male and female nudes of ancient Greek art and sculpture a reflection of the decadence of ancient Greek culture? (some would say yes!) Or is that our modern or not-so-modern (Victorian) perspective? To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a nude male, nude female, and exposed parts thereof are just what they are ... males, females, and their parts which happen to be uncovered. That doesn't mean all the ancient Greeks were homosexual or constantly lusting after women. Oh, if the ancient Greeks created their own artwork, does that give them a "pass" to depict their culture with "licentious" imagery (from someone else's perspective)? So as for this article, only "orientals" can paint nude males in a snake charming painting with credibility? Who can say that such an image is NOT accurate, without more facts? Because Gerome and other "occidental" artists are evil, culturally-distorting, and imperialistic, what they paint cannot possibly be authentic? Yeah, sure (rolls eyes). As to staged or posed photos, ALL photos are staged ... their poses, the lighting, the colors or lack thereof, their exposure, and even just their subject matter. Without more facts, if a photographer (who happens to be "occidental") only photographed slums in an "oriental" country, or even in Latin America, or in fact anywhere including the "West" with litter and pollution, maybe that is all the photographer saw!
    (7 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
      Well, there were a disproportionate number of Orientalist paintings portraying harems and odalisques (prostitutes) VS portraying any other subject. Other genes of painting did include nudes, but it was in a non-sexual manner. Topics ranged from mythology to religious subjects - think about David's history paintings, which include naked men who are not meant to be seen as sexual. But whenever there is nudity in Orientalist painting, its always portraying a sex worker (I can think of no counterexample, except maybe that snake charmer boy.)

      I agree that photos are staged, but the degree of staging is important. If reality were modified for reasons such as balancing the composition by moving people around, that would be fine. But instead of finding a real person and photographing their real dress, their real belongings and surroundings, the Orientalists would dress them up and place them on a fantastical setting with fake props to cater to Western preconceptions.

      Maybe Orientalism shows what it feels like to be a tourist, but it certainly does not capture the inside reality of non-European lands.

      Those are my thoughts, anyway.
      (47 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Kylo_Ren
    Why does art like this get bashed if someone does it today?
    (4 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
      Because Western society today is far more knowledgeable about Middle Eastern cultures & traditions, so artists depicting themes related to the Middle East are expected to be familiar with Middle Eastern history and culture, and to depict the region with humanity. Orientalist art does the opposite - it makes everything seem exotic and alien and non-human, even though people from the Middle East are as human as Westerners.
      (27 votes)
  • purple pi pink style avatar for user jamesteodoro
    why is the first picture have a naked lady?
    (3 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user jechevarria
    what does Orientalist have to do with art?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Yijun Fang
    The article mentioned the book Orientalism is itself criticized. What's the reason? Isn't it anti-orientalism? It's criticized at that time or till now?
    (4 votes)
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  • leaf yellow style avatar for user Nacho.V.Tiravantti
    What are some good ¨objective¨ examples of a non distorted view of the above mentioned ¨East¨?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Tammy Trammell
      As David said; the viewer will distort what they see. I recall an eye-witness account of a North African tribe's coming of age ceremony for girls. The ceremony involved the girls pairing off and fighting to the death to ensure the strength of the tribe. The European explorer described the ceremony as "quaint".
      I would recommend reading and viewing original works from the culture you are interested in.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Yijun Fang
    and also: why would the orientalism narrative make the government and the public think those easterners are controllable? I think alienating them who make the eastern world undesirable?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      This is similar to how certain politicians in particular places paint foreigners as undesirable. It has happened in the past and it happens even now. It's part of what is encompassed under the title "Xenophobia". I'm a citizen of Taiwan. The people of Taiwan can demonize the Chinese, and the Chinese can demonize the Taiwanese. It happens.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user mzblueeyes11
    what role does economics play in this art style?
    (1 vote)
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    • scuttlebug yellow style avatar for user Erin Kelly
      Not only might the art sell well for a market, but the subjects were portrayed as lazy, backward, and unable to care for their own civilization which enabled Europe to continue colonization in these "Orient" areas which was extremely lucrative because they had the approval of their own people. A normal European was made to believe the the colonization was necessary because the "Orientals" were too backward and lazy to take care of themselves.
      (4 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Katy Harris
    In the section titled "Orientalism: fact or fiction?" the author mentions that the paintings "depict an exotic (...) and therefore feminized (...) culture." How was this culture depicted as feminized?
    (2 votes)
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user princesskateza123
    Laides shouldn't have been like that because we have power
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Austin
      Well , there is a major difference between us right now and "us" at that point of time , and the reason why paintings where like this is , because of point in philosophy in power now is different when compared with that point in time
      (2 votes)