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Home >> Popular Painting Styles >> Orientalism


The core idea behind Orientalism according to Edward Said is that the West has created a dichotomy, between the reality of the East and the romantic notion of the Orient. The Middle East and Asia are viewed with prejudice and racism. They are made out to be a race, which is backward and unaware of its own history and culture. To fill this void, to bring light to the uninitiated, the West has created a culture, history, and future promise for them. On this framework rests not only the study of the Orient, but also the political imperialism of Europe in the East.

History of Orientalism

As early as Napoleon's campaigns into Egypt, the Orient fascinated Europe. The Orient-including present-day Turkey, Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa-exerted its allure on the Western artist's imagination. Figures in Middle Eastern dress appear in Renaissance works. The opulent eroticism of harem scenes appealed to the French Rococo aesthetic. Until this point, however, Europeans had minimal contact with the East, usually through trade and intermittent military campaigns. In 1798, a French army led by General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt and occupied the country until 1801.

Depiction of Harems in Orientalist Paintings

Most Orientalist Paintings depict harems. Probably denied entrance to authentic seraglios, male artists relied largely on hearsay and imagination, populating opulently decorated interiors with luxuriant odalisques, or female slaves or concubines (many with Western features), reclining in the nude or in Oriental dress. Painters like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres never traveled to the East, but conjured voluptuous nymphs in erotic harem settings from his imagination. Beyond their implicit eroticism, harem scenes evoked a sense of cultivated beauty and pampered isolation to which many Westerners aspired.

Other themes

While many Europeans depended on published travelogues and officially sanctioned literature like the Description de l'Égypte for their reference of the orient, many artists actually took the pains of making one or more journeys to the region. Genre painting, the prevalent form of Orientalist art in the nineteenth century, drew from the everyday life of the Oriental cities. Orientalist Painter, Gérôme popularized the theme of the bashi-bazouk, or Turkish mercenary soldier, often depicted in routine activities or at leisure.

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