Orientalism is not only a way of reinterpreting the unfamiliar, but a cultural phenomenon that is deeply rooted in the most human fear of the unknown. In art, Orientalism is associated with exoticism – hazy coffeehouses, mysterious markets, impractical and intricate costumes, and unfathomable secrets paired with barbarism, cruelty, and irrationality. Orientalism reflects the fear and awe with which the imagined West sees the imagined East – a concept that exacerbates this already artificial divide. Since all art reflects the trends of its time and reality, it can rarely remain immune to propaganda. Orientalism is the result of such political and cultural propaganda. Introduced into scholarship and popular culture by Edward Said, Orientalism is just one form of describing an enigmatic “other.”
In addition to “Orientalism,” there exists “Occidentalism” – the same curious and dismissive view of the East aimed at the rational, arrogant, and ultimately shallow West. Both these notions are two sides of the same coin called “othering” by historians and specialists in social sciences.
Between Awe and Scorn: What Is Orientalism?
While Orientalism is a phenomenon of “othering” characteristic for the West, it was not until recently that the term entered academia. The first person to address this concept was the historian Edward Said, whose seminal work “Orientalism” appeared in 1978. Said first defined the nature of Orientalism and its pitfalls. Said described this warped view of unfamiliar cultures as a “living tableau of queerness.” Although he focused on the perceptions of the exotic East, the very borders of that East always remained blurred – Orientalism enveloped Africa and the Middle East, China and Japan, India and Central Asia.
It was not until recently that another historian, Maria Todorova, addressed a different shade of Orientalism that targeted the Russian Empire and the Balkans. As it turns out, Said’s Orientalism describes a much more widespread phenomenon. Thus, Todorova’s concepts of “semi-othering” or “Balkanism” refer to the not-so-different but still “uncivilized” and “unfamiliar” Eastern European lands.
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Ultimately, Orientalism is defined by the Western viewpoint. One other important 18th-century scholar introduced this viewpoint, who took upon himself a task to measure the merits of all civilizations with one proverbial ruler.
If Said debunked Orientalism and its harmful effects, then Johann Winckelmann reinforced its bias in the domain of art and culture. He introduced the concept of a “worthy civilization” that would become the universal standard for cultures worldwide. As a brilliant art historian, Winckelmann was obsessed with Antiquity, his fascination leading him to turn Hellenistic culture into this golden standard imposed upon every civilization that ever was.
Winckelmann wrote: “The only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if possible, is to imitate the Greeks.”
Grand Tours of Europe undertaken by young Western intellectuals and artists from the 18th century onward only reinforced that notion: these scholars flocked to Italy to see the grandeur of the Roman Empire and dreamt of Greece that was under Ottoman Rule.
Surprisingly, Greece, which eventually became an independent state, had a history that departed far from the imagined ancient ideals of Winckelmann’s Europe. In the mid-19th century, Greece broke off from the Ottoman Empire but preserved many Ottoman and Byzantine legacies, including Orthodoxy. In reality, Greek nationalist intellectuals and revolutionaries were ironically not at all similar to the Western idea about them.
Thus, Greeks, albeit to a lesser extent than most Balkan Slavs, faced the same sort of Orientalism from the West. Nonetheless, Orientalism did not always focus on dehumanization and exoticization. Orientalism in the hands of many European artists was initially an attempt to understand worlds they knew little about. After all, the awakening interest in the East caused the West to start cherishing the contributions of civilizations that did not follow the familiar set of rules of the ancient Greco-Roman civilizations.
The Unfathomable “Other”
It is difficult to determine when Orientalism became such an inherent part of art and culture in the West. After all, it is typical for all civilizations to regard those unlike them with a mixture of interest and scorn. Typically, the “barbarians” are such because they are not “one of us.” Art was the first medium that treated the “other” not just with derision but with the attention that would later lead to appreciation and gradual understanding.
Ancient Romans and Greeks tried to imitate Ancient Egypt’s grandeur while still viewing it as an “exotic other.” This fascination with Egypt spanned centuries. Some of the most famous examples of Orientalist artwork from the Roman era are the sculptures of Antinous as Osiris with an Egyptian Crown. Antinous was the lover of Emperor Hadrian who perished under mysterious circumstances. Sculpted with the classical Egyptian headdress, Osiris-Antinous expressed the regal and divine nature of a figure deified by his grieving lover. These statues demonstrate the seeds of Orientalist attitudes by blending imitation and curiosity. This way of thinking would later influence and shape European art.
In The Footsteps of The Romans
Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Orientalism took a different turn in the West. In the Middle Ages, “Otherness” often appeared in Western art as a depiction of something fearsome and destructive. For example, “exotically” dressed or “exotic-looking” figures turn up in paintings depicting hell or demons.
This attitude was in part sparked by the growing might of the Ottoman Empire. While admiring the discipline and ingenuity of the Ottomans, even Martin Luther assumed that their power was meant to punish the undeserving and decadent Catholic world. Renaissance politicians also fueled that trepidation for the “Other” when threatened by the powerful Ottomans.
While European statesmen continued opposing this “Other” from the East, European Artists discovered worlds not unlike their own – worlds that they wanted to understand. Bellini, Rembrandt, and Veronese all explored Orientalist themes, studying cultures that enriched their own approaches to art.
Rembrandt’s famous Portrait of a Turk is one such iconic image that illustrates the rise of Orientalism in the modern world. An authentic costume occupies an equally important part of the artist’s imagination as the subject himself. In the 17th century, the popularity of exotic entourage, or character studies in fanciful dress, were largely the result of the visits by Eastern emissaries to the Dutch Republic and the many successful enterprises of the Dutch merchants who brought home souvenirs and tales from abroad.
Later, that interest would turn into turqueria, an obsession with Oriental fashion and trends. During the first half of the 18th century, Western European nobility developed a taste for the “exotic.” Oriental clothing, or what was considered such, was worn, and their mantelpieces displayed objects from the Ottoman Empire. The French-Dutch painter Charles André van Loo went as far as to depict Madame Pompadour (Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, 1721–1764, mistress of Louis XV) as “Sultana” in (partially) Ottoman costume on a divan while her servant passes her coffee – a Turkish drink par excellence.
Orientalism said more about the West than it did about the East. Even the notion of what constituted the “East” remained vague. Christian and undoubtedly European Russian and Balkan lands were Orientalized much like far-away China, Japan, Africa, or the Middle East – all states and cultures that were as different from each other as from the abstract West.
The Rise of Orientalism In Art
Partially, the rise of Orientalism in the 19th century coincided with the expansion of Western colonialism as well as its legacy of brutal exploitation. Orientalism helped justify French imperial expansion as a civilizational mission. For example, Antoine-Jean Gros, a French painter, accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign and left artistic testament to the exploits of the future Emperor.
One of the important works inspired by those French exploits was The Sphinx by Charles-Théodore Frère, one of the best-sold French painters of his time. Impressed by Egypt during his travels, the artist combined ancient legacies with contemporary details in his work, depicting a lonely European horseman on the Giza plateau outside of Cairo.
Frère’s series of paintings combining Ancient and Arabic motifs were the apex of a long string of pieces produced by Western painters inspired by the book published in 1809 – the first installment of the twenty-four-volume Description de l’Égypte. The book illustrated the topography, architecture, monuments, natural life, and population of Egypt. This work occupies a prominent place in Said’s analyses of Orientalism since it shaped Western artists’ perceptions for better and for worse.
Alongside stereotypes, Orientalism also brought unexpected discoveries which popularized the art of the “Other.” For example, the French scholar Jean-François Champollion deciphered previously unintelligible Egyptian hieroglyphs, which gave a chance to future generations of artists and scholars not only to depict the East but also to understand it. Champollion’s discovery, as well as growing imperialism, revived Orientalist fashions in the West, and Sumerian, Egyptian, and other Ancient civilizations became topics of debate and interest.
Western Fantasy About A World That Never Was….
Colonial powers such as the French or the British Empires opened the world to the West, where they were free to impose their rules on others. Being so vast, the British Empire allowed its painters to travel and experience a multitude of cultures. Costume books gained popularity, shedding light on the traditions and customs that were previously inaccessible to the larger European public.
Everything about the imagined Orient was attractive to the Western eye – costumes, customs, nature, and history. David Roberts, for example, visited Northern Africa and the Middle East to finally accomplish his dream of becoming a full-time artist. His fascination with the natural beauty of the imagined Orient brought forth many paintings that show what attracted Western painters the most to these seemingly foreign lands. In the case of Robert’s Gulf of Aqaba, it was a combination of dress, camels, and desert landscape that caught the eye of the Scotsman.
Other Orientalist painters included curious individuals whose works often reflected their fantasies. Although many of them indeed visited Africa and the Middle East, these artists painted scenes that had little to do with reality. Such was the case with Tepidarium by Théodore Chassériau, who imagined an Orientalist interior filled with half-naked women. Similarly, many of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s paintings bore resemblances to that unrealistically theatrical world, the European version of the Orient.
Orientalism, however, was not only about the depiction of nature and costumes. Although Said explored the skewed perspective that the movement introduced to the West, he somewhat ignored the fact that in the 19th century, Orientalism did not encompass solely this phenomenon. In certain ways, Orientalist topics also drew attention to current events and their terrible consequences. One such case is the story of a terrifying massacre immortalized not by writers and journalists but by one of the most famous French artists of his time – Eugène Delacroix.
In 1822, Ottoman forces massacred the Greek inhabitants of the Island of Chios. More than 20,000 people were murdered, while the surviving 70,000 were either deported or turned into slaves. Delacroix’s Chios Massacre sparked controversy and forced European powers to notice the plight of the Balkan nations growing more potent with the rise of European nationalism in the 19th century. This terrifying event wouldn’t have received the same recognition in the West had it not been for Delacroix’s wildly popular painting.
The Curious Case of Eastern Europe
In Eastern Europe, Orientalism diverted from its Western paradigm. The main difference between artists in Eastern Europe and the West lay in the context of their upbringing. For Western Europe, the Orient represented an exotic “other,” while in Eastern Europe, Orientalism was part of a national narrative. For example, many Balkan and Russian artists did not see Turks, Tatars, and Central Asian people as abstract “others.” They were instead compatriots, adversaries, neighbors, and allies.
Both the Balkans and Russia were exoticized by the West, as the historian Larry Wolf analyzed in his book Creating Eastern Europe. However, the lines between Orient and Occident were often more blurred than one can imagine. One can hardly regard Ivan Aivazovsky, an Armenian by origin and born on the Crimean Peninsula, as an Orientalist painter when he depicted the streets of Constantinople, or at least not in the way Edward Said described it.
However, Russian Orientalism certainly existed. Painters like Vasily Vereshchagin dedicated a lot of time and effort in depicting Central Asia while often stressing the same “exotic” attributes like costumes or architectural marvels. However, Russian artists often displayed a similar attitude towards the West: they admired and scorned Western European culture for its supposed decadence and soullessness.
Orientalism and Stereotypes In Art
As Edward Said repeatedly pointed out in his work, Western Orientalism never fully reflected reality. However, the most popular tropes in art endured long enough to twist even our contemporary perspectives today. For example, the multiple harem scenes depicted by Western painters were almost always fantasies about submissive “Oriental beauties” that had little to do with realities. Most men would not have been allowed into the ladies’ private quarters. The stereotypical “Oriental” beauties appeared in Delacroix’s Women of Algiers as well as in many other works by European painters who displayed their fantasies about Eastern lifestyles.
Additionally, the Turkish Baths by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres had nothing to do with what went on in real life. While the artist depicts voluptuous naked ladies dancing and playing musical instruments in the baths, a bathhouse’s reality was far from that kind of sensual fantasy. Similarly, the iconography of naked odalisques was the invention of European painters who depicted their idealized versions of mistresses in lacy robes.
Said wrote that Orientalism denuded the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region. Often, Orientalism had the most diverse and most unlikely targets but always focused on “othering.” Art, however, provides modern-day spectators with an interesting vision of what we define as the Western viewpoint. Orientalist art appeared because of the lack of knowledge and abundance of curiosity. While often warping the truth and twisting reality, it also provided future generations with proof of how one singular viewpoint can distort a historical narrative and how each work of art should always be analyzed within its historical context.