Mary Anne Stevens, ed., The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse — The Allure of North Africa and the Near East (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, in association with Weidenfield and Nicolson, London, 1984).

Nowhere is nineteenth-century Europe’s vision of the Middle East expressed so vividly — at times even luridly — as in the work of its painters. Their canvases reveal how Orientalism created what Edward Said calls “an imaginative geography” of the region. A large exhibition entitled The Orientalists, 1798-1914 showed earlier this year at London’s Royal Academy and in July opened at the National Gallery in Washington. This sampling of “imaginative geography” as portrayed by British and continental artists covers a variety of artistic styles and schools of painting — romantics, realists, pre-Raphaelites, impressionists and early modernists. It spans the century of Europe’s imperialist expansion in the Middle East, beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and ending with the impending collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its division between Britain and France.

In the opening article of the catalogue, Mary Ann Stevens, the exhibition’s organizer in London, discusses how painters as different as Delacroix and Matisse approach what they perceived as the “exotic.” She argues that

The exhibition also confronts the issues raised by Orientalism, which cut across the chronology of European painting, such as the various attempts to evoke an exotic, remote world, and the artistic solutions to the challenge of depicting unfamiliar terrain, customs, light and color.

She does not deal with the question of whether the painters shared certain intellectual preconceptions about the Orient. Thus she defines Orientalism in rather a different manner from that of Said.

Stevens appears to accept this concept of the exotic as a given which requires artistic expression, where Said sees it as an intellectual or ideological notion to be challenged. Said does not examine Orientalist painting in his book, prefering to focus on the written word, but at one point he remarks in passing:

Later in the nineteenth century, in the works of Delacroix and literally dozens of other French and British painters, the Oriental genre tableau carried representation into visual expression and a life of its own…. Sensuality, promise, terror, sublimity, idyllic pleasure, intense energy…

All these elements can be found in the paintings in this exhibition. Certainly we cannot view these works outside the context of Europe’s political and economic relationship with the Middle East in that century. This atmosphere, as well as preconceptions about “the Orient” undoubtedly affected the views of the ever-growing number of European visitors to “the Levant” and North Africa. Painters were probably little different from the other tourists. Few spent long periods of time in the Middle East. The Scottish landscape painter David Roberts spent a total of eleven months traveling Egypt, Palestine and Syria in 1838-1839. Fromentin made several trips to Algeria in the 1840s and 1850s but Delacroix’s prolific output of orientalist works was based on one visit to North Africa. Many others made only the briefest of excursions.

Said’s observation that the literature and scholarship dealing with the Middle East occupied itself far more with its past than its present is also evident in these paintings. The contemporary state of political and social affairs in the Middle East was anyhow not the main preoccupation. According to Stevens, the choice of paintings sought to exclude, in the main, paintings with directly historical themes, since “they involved the historical reconstruction of the Orient rather than a commitment, in varying degrees to direct observation of the contemporary culture.” This seems disingenuous, given the paintings chosen. They may purport to show contemporary scenes, yet they are clearly intended to evoke resonances of Biblical, ancient Egyptian or classical themes. In fact, a few pages further into her introduction, Stevens refers to Delacroix’s view of Maghribis as “paradoxically, the reincarnation of the classical ideal of Greece and Rome.” Delacroix wrote, “Imagine, my friend, what it is to see figures of the Age of the Consuls, Catos, Brutuses seated in the sun, walking in the streets, mending old shoes…. The Antique has nothing that is more beautiful.”


If the past is often imposed on the present in the suqs of Cairo or in the courtyards of Algerian merchants’ houses, so the concerns of Christianity along with a variety of other European ideological and moral preoccupations are introduced into what seem at first sight to be portrayals of Middle Eastern life. Malcolm Warner, in his catalogue article “The Question of Faith: Orientalism, Christianity and Islam,” comments that

The Orientalist painter was not an innocent eye. His vision of the Near East was conditioned by his own concerns as a European and a Christian. Looked at from the religious point of view, as from others, Orientalism tells us something about the Near East but far more about the state of mind of nineteenth century Europe.

Thus Joseph-Florentin-Leon Bonnat could paint a picture entitled “An Egyptian Peasant Woman and Her Child” which not only presents a highly romanticized picture of poverty overlaid with voluptuousness but also refers to Christian iconography. According to the catalogue, “The complex but graceful pose of the two figures echo that of a madonna and child and refer back to his Ascension de la Vierge painted in 1868 for St. Andre, Bayonne.”

Sometimes a Christian reference is inserted into a painting of a Muslim religious occasion. For instance, in a work by Leon-Adolphe-Auguste Belly entitled “Pilgrims Going to Mecca” the catalogue notes that in one corner of the painting is a woman and a child on a donkey, an allusion to the biblical flight to Egypt. Other paintings, for example, Delacroix’s “Fanatics of Tangier” evokes a vision of Islam as wild and frenzied, bringing fear even to the onlookers in the painting. This contrasts with Gerome’s more sober and dignified treatment of the Sufis in “The Whirling Dervishes.”

As Ward points out, there were many nuances and even ambiguities in Western attitudes to Islam. Not every painting expresses denigration, hostility, or even directly gives the images another meaning. He argues that “for many the principal attraction of the Islamic world was its supposed voluptuousness.” But again

the Orientalist portrayal of all male gatherings of Muslims at prayer must just seem a corollary to the idea of the Muslim as lord of the harem, an apotheosis of the men’s club. This may well be part of the meaning of the subject, but it seems to have carried other genuinely religious implications as well.

Ward argues that those paintings which offer a more respectful view of Muslim worship reflected a view of Islam as a pure and simple religion, with a cleanness of spirit reminiscent of earlier ages of Christianity. Such a vision would appeal to those who saw nineteenth-century Christianity as corrupted or institutionalized. Thus Islam is appropriated to reflect the needs and concerns of Western Christianity.


This romantic and nostalgic view extends to wider issues of European culture. For those who rejected the decadence of industrializing society in Europe found in the desert dwellers of the Middle East a vision of life free from such complexities. Among writers, Wilfred Scawen Blunt and later T. E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger exhibited the grip of this romanticism. Among painters it is particularly evident in the work of Eugene Giradet, for whom the deserts of North Africa held a great fascination reaching, it seems, beyond the artistic challenge of responding to new kinds of light and color. Another version of this romanticism is found in the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites. Holman Hunt’s two paintings entitled “Afterglow in Egypt” evince a nostalgia for a sensual, fruitful peasant life. At the same time, Hunt was expressing another kind of nostalgia common in this era for the glories of ancient Egypt. The peasant woman he paints expresses his feeling that “although the meridian glory of ancient Egypt has passed away, there is still a poetic reflection of this in the aspect of life there.”

Thus portrayals of “Oriental” subjects, whether people, landscapes or monuments are often imbued with a significance which does not intrinsically belong to them. While it is in the nature of artistic creation that the painter should treat his/her subject according to individual perceptions within a given style, what is striking about this particular genre of painting is the constant sense of the artists’ desires to enlist the subjects to serve particular preoccupations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the transfer of Western male sexual fantasies and repressed desires to the female “Oriental.” Said discusses this phenomenon in some detail in his treatment of Flaubert, and much of this interpretation applies to these paintings. The odalisque (female slave or concubine) is one of the commonest subjects — examples in this exhibition include paintings by Ingres, Benjamin-Constant, Matisse and Renoir. Their vastly different stylistic approaches all evoke a vision of sensuality and promise.

The harem and the Turkish bath were also a great source of fascination to painters, though few can even have been inside either. Stevens comments that

It is symptomatic of the strength of this image that, despite the heightened interest in the truthful representation of the Near East and North Africa in the nineteenth century, the harem, the bath and the guard to the seraglio remained amongst the most popular manifestations of Orientalism in both painting and literature.

These scenes were usually reconstructed in the studio, using models. If the paintings were executed in the Middle East, these were apparently often Jewish women, if not Europeans. A striking feature of many of the interiors is that great attention is paid to the details of the decor — tiles, carved doors, carpets, textiles. Sometimes more detail is lavished on the furniture and costumes than on the faces of the people. Some painters, for instance the Austrian Ludvig Deutsch, kept a large collection of “Oriental” objects — tiles, mashrabiyya and carpets — in his studios in France for use in this type of painting. In this exhibition almost all the portraits of named individuals are of Europeans, several — including David Roberts and T. E. Lawrence — in Arab dress, while portraits of Arab subjects are “types” — a fellah, an Egyptian woman and so on.

Another genre of painting which treated Middle Eastern locales at this time was landscape painting of the region’s deserts, mountains, castles and ancient monuments. Prominent among these was David Roberts, best know for water colors and lithographs of the great historical sites of the Middle East. While accuracy of detail was not always the primary concern of such artists, they did help to record the antiquities and past architectural glories of Egypt, Turkey, Palestine and Syria in which Orientalist scholars in Europe took such an interest. They also helped to popularize the decorative motifs from these antiquities, especially from Egypt, which were to find their way into decorative work on British and European architecture of the late nineteenth century and into the productions of entire schools of design. This role of recording the treasures of the Orient had largely passed to photography by the latter part of the century. In fact, photography was first introduced into the Middle East in the 1840s expressly to record Egyptian antiquities.

Said has argued that the whole range of European (at least British and French) thought and perception and its political-economic actions related to the Middle East represented “one dynamic and creative process.” The relationship between this intellectual climate and imperialist policies may be rather more complex than Said suggests, and the power of the Orientalist scholars and the artists who followed their ideas may be less hegemonic than his argument implies. Nonetheless, the Orientalist genre in painting as in the other arts does project a coherence of underlying attitudes and ideas which even cuts across the very different worlds of British and French artistic culture. Stevens’ contention that the confrontation between Europe and the Middle East took the form of a “dialogue” rather than a “discourse” rests on the argument that European painting styles were influenced, even changed, by the impact of the artists’ contact with Middle Eastern culture. Yet the question remains as to whether this impact was produced by the culture itself, or by the mingling of the artist’s often fleeting personal experience of it, with certain “Orientalist” notions. Second, the idea of a “dialogue” assumes that both European and Middle Eastern culture were ascribed equal weight and importance. Almost all the literature of the era would refute this, either implicitly or explicitly.

Of course, cultural attitudes of domination may be found in European art and literature about other parts of the world which were colonized or dominated by the Western powers. It would be interesting to compare these Orientalist paintings with a similar genre which takes, for instance, India or China as its subject. While it is likely that many common features would be found, it does seem that Europe’s view of the Middle East contains, as Said suggests, certain special features: first and foremost a view of Islam which is not comparable to European perceptions of Hinduism or Buddhism. Geographical proximity has left a long history of well-remembered conflict which has helped to create both a sense of threat and a need to contain it.

This exhibition and others like it, and a spate of books on Orientalist painting, suggest that there has been a revival of interest in the genre. This has been encouraged by commercial art dealers and galleries which are now finding that this and other kinds of nineteenth-century “nostalgia” bring good returns. Despite the critical work of Said and others after him, the present political climate, in the US even more than in Europe, does not encourage serious analysis of political events and trends in the Middle East, particularly as they relate to the nature of Islam and Arab culture. Thus paintings which evoke violence and threat can still be easily accepted. At the same time, many viewers are able to look at paintings of market scenes and monuments as an extension of photographs — “like” something seen on holidays and tours in the region.

This nostalgia is not restricted to Europeans. There is an increasing interest in nineteenth-century Orientalist painting among Arabs themselves, particularly those who can afford to purchase art. Like old photographs, these paintings are seen, sometimes quite uncritically, as a representation of life in the Arab world “as it used to be.” In the absence of other types of figurative visual imagery of the past, Orientalist paintings serve as a measure of change, or an evocation of a lost era. Thus what was appropriated by Europe can be reappropriated and is in danger of becoming part of national memory and heritage.

How to cite this article:

Sarah J Graham-Brown "Orientalism in Color," Middle East Report 125/126 (July-September 1984).

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