Claude Piening discusses the meaning of Orientalism and highlights from the Orientalist Sale on 8 April in London.


Étienne Dinet, Le Conciliabule.

LONDON - It has been argued that, by the early 19th century, many European representations of “the Orient” (the 19th-century descriptor for Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt, and North Africa) grew out of limited, often jumbled information gathered by the handful of explorers, writers and diplomats who had visited the region. These accounts were, in turn, interpreted and embellished by authors, scholars, and politicians at home, resulting in, at best, Romantic or imagined evocations of realms beyond the bounds of Western experience and, at worst, ill-informed judgments with a colonialist agenda. This thesis reached its culmination in Edward Said’s famous and highly influential 1978 book, Orientalism, a term he used to refer to a European strategy to impose its authority over those peoples and nations known collectively as the Orient.   

Said’s critique was directed primarily at the texts of 18th- and early 19th-century scholars, with Edward William Lane’s An Account of the Manners and customs of the Modern Egyptians, published in 1836, coming under particular fire as an example of a sprawling and incoherent account of that country. Ever since (and perhaps because Said’s book featured Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting, The Snake Charmer, on its cover) Said’s version of Orientalism and the genre of Orientalist painting have become conflated. For many Western scholars, Orientalist art came to be seen as the visual embodiment of the same exoticising, colonialist agenda.


David Roberts, 
Coppersmiths Bazaar, Cairo.

But this was certainly not the intention of the vast majority of Orientalist painters, and certainly not the way in which Orientalist art is viewed by collectors and institutions in the region today. Travelling to the East from across America and Europe, these artists were far from ‘armchair’ travellers. By visiting the Orient and trying to capture it faithfully they set themselves the challenge of painting sites, cultures and a bright desert light few had experienced before. David Roberts, for example, toured the Near East in 1838, focusing on Egypt and Palestine, producing hundreds of detailed drawings and sketches of the mosques and bazaars. His Coppersmiths Bazaar, Cairo, a highlight of our forthcoming Orientalist Sale in London on 8 April, depicts a very real place in time (1842), and the view remains little changed today.


Ludwig Deutsch, The Mahmal being Processed through the Streets of Cairo, 1909. 

The Austrian painter Ludwig Deutsch travelled regularly to Cairo, and in his monumental 1909 work The Mahmal being Processed through the Streets of Cairo, also offered in the sale, Deutsch records in tremendous detail an event central to Muslim life: the Cairo departure of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.  

Egypt was central to the work of the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, who is represented in the sale by a striking painting of a Bashi-Bazouk, a minutely observed portrait of a soldier in a magnificent tribal headdress. Photographers Auguste Bartholdi and Albert Goupil accompanied Gérôme and their documentary photographs, along with his own sketches, aided him in his quest for verisimilitude in his finished paintings. 

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bashi-Bazouk.

One artist who took his desire to immerse himself in Muslim culture to an unprecedented level was the French painter Etienne Dinet who moved to Algeria, learned to speak Arabic fluently, and in 1913 converted to Islam, changing his name to Nasreddin (‘Defender of the Faith’). In 1929 Dinet went on the Hajj with his friend Slimane Ben Ibrahim. Dinet is represented in the sale by two important works: Le Conciliabule and Deux fillettes.


Étienne Dinet, Deux Fillettes.

Orientalist paintings such as these are coveted by collectors and institutions in the region today, for whom they afford fascinating glimpses into their countries’ history, from a time before the widespread use of photography, when representative painting was little practised by local artists.