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Volume 35, Number 6November/December 1984

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The Orientalists

Written by June Taboroff
Photographs courtesy of National Gallery of Art

In Washington, D.C. this summer, the National Gallery of Art opened an extraordinarily colorful exhibition of paintings on the subject of what the West once called the "Orient": the Islamic Near East, North Africa and the Holy Land - an area which enthralled hundreds of artists, writers, poets and scholars. Called "The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse, the Allure of North Africa and the Near East," the exhibition drew thousands of enthusiastic visitors.

With more than 90 paintings on canvas covering a period that began with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 and ended with World War I, the exhibition was hung salon style: paintings close together and sometimes one above the other, suggesting a setting in which many Orientalist works were first exhibited. Visually rewarding and often astonishing, the exhibit, which chronicled the responses of painters to the Middle East, reveals a great deal about the area itself-as well as social and religious attitudes.

Since antiquity, the Orient to Europeans was a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and remarkable experiences. And the exhibition showed it in a wide range of subject matter: landscapes of ancient sites, the Holy Land, the River Nile, the desert, caravans and encampments, the vibrant life of cities, baths and odalisques - depicted by late 18th- through 20th-century painters.

The exhibit also confronted the issues raised by the concept of Orientalism as kinds of awareness - esthetic, social, economic, religious and historical - in particular the attempts to evoke an exotic, sensual world and depict unfamiliar terrain, light and color as well as unusual customs and costumes. It explored the relationship between Orientalist painting and the major developments in European art during the 19th century. The shift from Romanticism to Realism, and then to Impressionism and early Modernism, sees its reflections in the works of Eugene Delacroix, then of John Frederick Lewis and Jean-Leon Gérôme, and finally the canvases of Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse.

Napoleon's invasion of Egypt had not only launched European colonization of the Middle East, but also attracted a flow of scientists, scholars, academics and adventurers eager to see for themselves what had previously been largely a subject of speculation, the kind charmingly embodied in Mozart's slightly risque, picturesque fantasy of 1781, "Il Seraglio." Some European artists - Giovanni Bellini, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens and Antoine Watteau - had depicted Oriental personages, but the Orient as a theme did not emerge until the final years of the 18th century.

At first, in fact, most painters seemed to have preferred to remain in Europe and America. Even Baron Gros, propagandist of Napoleon's military campaigns, painted the French Army's exploits in Egypt and the Holy Land from the comfort of his Parisian studio. Gros, like the majority of his fellow painters of the period, relied on eyewitness accounts for details of battle, local color and setting.

In his dynamic painting, Battle of Nazareth of 1801 (Musée des Beaux Arts, Nantes), for example, Gros records the remarkable victory of the 500-strong French Army over thousands of Mamluk troops. In the painting Gros, who never set foot in the Middle East, focuses on the gallantry of its leader, General Junot, whom he portrays in a heroic warrior-like pose amid the battle.

Similarly, Jean-August-Dominique Ingres created such exotic subjects as Odalisque and Slave of 1842 (Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore) - even incorporating the colors and textures of Islamic interiors - without moving farther east than Rome. He derived his settings from literary descriptions and illustrations.

Both painters had an impact on Europe's view of the Islamic world. Just as Gros' paintings of tumultuous drama and heightened color shaped the expectations of both artists and the public throughout much of the 19th century, so too did Ingres' magical Oriental interiors become models for future depictions.

As far as painters were concerned, the Orient remained the subject of travelers' reports until the 1830's. Then, suddenly, artistic interest and enthusiasm bloomed as French colonial ambitions in North Africa were renewed and Turkish domination of the Near East declined. With travel now faster, easier and safer, artists could mount expeditions to gather material, without investing excessive amounts of time or risking any extreme danger. Moreover, they could count on a growing cadre of travelers to provide patronage and support for the work they produced.

British artists were the leaders in this sort of endeavor. David Roberts, William Muller and J.F. Lewis all made expeditions to the Near East in the 1830's and they were followed by their American counterparts, Sanford Gifford and Frederick Church, in the 1860's. And as physical accessibility to the Orient increased so did the esthetic of realism, based on objective representations of the external world.

In France, the first major artist to go in person to the Orient seems to have been Delacroix (1798-1863) and the results are clear in eight paintings in the Washington exhibition. Although he made only one visit to North Africa - six months in 1832 - his experiences there left indelible marks in theme and technique. And though Delacroix had been drawn to Near Eastern subjects during his adolescence - at 19 he produced two lithographs of the Ambassador of Persia - his The Collection of Arab Taxes of 1863 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), exemplifies his later work in which fantasy replaces realism. Here the realistic portrayal of an actual event is not the predominant concern, but the use of incident to meet specific pictorial demands: lighting and color, for example, designed to highlight figures.

Painted in the last year of the artist's life, this canvas is one of a series in which violent clashes between man and nature become a central theme - clouds used to heighten the sense of urgency and bold contrasts of reds and greens stressing the stridency of action. Thus imagination, assuming a dominant role, suggests to the West a turbulent and colorful East.

In contrast to the impassioned vein in Delacroix's Orientalist paintings, there were also the almost documentary compositions of Gérôme on display. His meticulously detailed genre and history paintings - of which 13 were included in the show - record with accuracy the contemporary appearance of scenes and sites. His interest in the Near East, spurred by repeated visits to Egypt and Asia Minor from 1856 to 1875, extends to such subjects as mosques, bazaars, religious rituals, the hunt and bath, and the mysterious, and misunderstood, women's quarters, or harems - a subject that fascinated the West. One example of this is Gérôme's Harem in the Kiosk, c. 1874-1880 (Private collection, Houston) which presents an outing by Ottoman women and children with a recognizable silhouette of the Golden Horn in Istanbul, a city that Gérôme was to visit three times.

Although completed several years before Gérôme's "Kiosk", An Intercepted Correspondence of 1869 (Private collection, Houston) by the English painter J.F. Lewis (1805-1876) also treats harem life. In this narrative work, Lewis shows a woman of the harem who has just received an illicit bouquet of flowers. But the appeal of the painting has little to do with the harem; its beauty comes from the magnificent details of rich gowns, sunlight, calligraphy and furniture.

Lewis spent a decade in Cairo, living in great style in a large Mamluk house in the Ezbekiya quarter, and his familiarity with the surroundings of privileged Egyptian society is evident in his details of setting and costume: luminous stained glass, the shadows cast by the mashrabiya and the textures of cottons and silks.

The evocative traces of ancient civilization also captured the attention of Orientalist artists - most notably the Scottish painter David Roberts (1796-1864), who saw the Temple of Dendera in 1838 when it was still only partially excavated - with sand reaching to the roof in some places. The original zodiacal ceiling of this Ptolemaic temple had been moved in 1821 and installed in the Louvre. Yet in Roberts' Temple of Dendereh (the City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery), the temple is shown in a relatively good state of preservation.

Roberts' journal entry for October 19, 1838, records his emotions on first seeing Dendera: "I felt sad and solitary... overcome with melancholy reflections on the mutability of human greatness and the perishable nature of even the most enduring works of human genius." None of these gloomy ponderings, however, mar the broad theatrical sweep of the composition or the placement of the stage-like figures. Roberts, one of the first independent British artists to make the journey to the area, spent 11 months in 1838-1839 going up the Nile, seeing Cairo, the Sinai Desert, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. As he traveled, he sketched nearly every monument of note on the way, many from several viewpoints and from these accomplished sketches created oil paintings and lithographs that today offer an almost archeological record of the state of monuments in the mid-18th century (See Aramco World, March-April 1970).

Islam also intrigued Orientalist artists. One of the masterpieces of Orientalist painting, Pilgrims Going to Mecca, painted by Leon-Adolphe-August Belly (1827-1877) in 1861, focuses on a central duty of Islam, the Hajj - the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) - and the most characteristic landscape of the Near East - the desert.

In a letter of 1856, Belly recorded his intention to paint a desert scene with Arabs and dromedaries and to reproduce, like the realist painter Courbet, "the truly beautiful and interesting features of the every day life of our fellow men." Taking up to 37 days from Cairo, the caravan to Makkah was a highly organized affair, traveling between carefully placed water stations. In the painting Belly successfully depicts the social cross-section of the procession with a leader and pilgrims, on foot or borne in luxurious shibriyya (rounded) or takhtrawan (two camel) litters.

Together with the fierce sunlight, the unyielding landscape, and the earthy tonalities, Belly conveys a sense of quiet respect for the pilgrimage and its participants. His handling of the subject is in keeping with the concerns of painters of the latter part of the century in describing not only the picturesque qualities of life, but its realities as well. Belly's knowledge of the Near East was gained on three trips, made between 1851 and 1857.

Many of the painters who came to know the Near East and North Africa were inspired to break away from the conventions they discovered. No more joyous depiction of the lushness of the Oriental garden exists than in the work of Matisse (1869-1954). After first visiting Morocco briefly in 1906, Matisse returned for two further trips in 1912, producing a garden trip-tych. The Palm Leaf, Tangier painted in the autumn of 1912 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.), portrays, as do Moroccan Landscape and Moroccan Garden, the garden of the Villa Bronx in Tangier. The paint is sparingly applied and the colors are provocative in their reds, oranges, browns and greens. The bold use of black lines creates an intense pattern across the surface of the landscape and provides a strong tonal contrast. This patterning seems to be a response to the formal qualities of Islamic art. Matisse, enraptured with the light and landscapes of Morocco as well as with the prevailing artistic heritage, determinedly integrated these elements into his work.

As demonstrated by the exhibition, the appeal of the Orient, whether in fantasies or realities, is extremely broad. The European and American vision of North Africa and the Near East, the meeting point of western preconceptions and actual observations, is one aspect of the progress of dialogue between cultures.

June Taboroff, who earned a Ph.D. in art and architectural history at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, specializes in Islamic art and architecture.

This article appeared on pages 18-27 of the November/December 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1984 images.