LONDONRoxane Zand recently had the opportunity to interview Claude Piening, the head of the Orientalist Paintings department, about the Orientalist sale in London on 8 April. His knowledge and enthusiasm for a subject that has been often misunderstood was inspiring.  

RZ: ‘The Orient’ can be used as an umbrella term, but which areas or countries were meant by the word in the 19th century?
CP: It was a very broad term, used to describe Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt, and North Africa. 

To us now, it sounds slightly outdated, and perhaps Romantic? 
Yes, during the 19th century there was already a critique of the Orientalist movement – that only a handful of explorers, writers, and diplomats had actually visited the region, and the artists and writers back home were simply imagining and embellishing Romantic visions of the East. This argument was made famous in Edward Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism. He referred to a European strategy to impose its authority over the nations known collectively as the Orient. And unfortunately the cover of his book featured Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting, The Snake Charmer. Ever since, the term Orientalism has become conflated with the genre of Orientalist painting – with some Western scholars viewing it as the visual embodiment of an exoticising, colonialist agenda.  

I know this isn’t the way Orientalist art is viewed by collectors and institutions in the region today. 
And it was certainly not the intention of the vast majority of Orientalist painters. They visited these countries with the aim of trying to capture faithfully what they experienced, not only in order to enlighten their audiences back home, but to raise the bar for their own art. They were faced with the new challenges of painting  landscapes, cultures and a light that was entirely unfamiliar. 

What would you say was the main aim of these painters? What were they trying to capture? 
They wanted to capture not only what they saw, but what they experienced – and all in glorious detail. We can see this in the monumental 1909 work The Mahmal being Processed through the Streets of Cairo by the Austrian painter Ludwig Deutsch. He has chosen to represent an event central to Muslim life, the departure of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

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

From the monumental size of the canvas it is clear he wanted to celebrate this event. And the detail is remarkable, you really get the sense you are there, among the pilgrims on the narrow street, with a glimpse of the mahmal, the elaborate coffer containing the Koran.  But a painting this large must have been made in a studio, what did these artists use for reference?
Many of these works are studio paintings, but for instance, David Roberts, whose work focused on Egypt and Palestine, produced hundreds of detailed drawings and sketches of the mosques and bazaars. His Coppersmiths Bazaar, Cairo, which is in the sale, depicts a view which remains little changed from when he painted it in 1842. And Jean-Léon Gérôme was accompanied on his journeys by photographers Auguste Bartholdi and Albert Goupil, whose documentary photographs he used, together with his own sketches made on the spot, to produce his finished paintings.

David Roberts, Coppersmiths Bazaar, Cairo.

And were any of these artists so seduced by the culture they encountered they didn’t return home?
Of course, the French painter Etienne Dinet immersed himself completely in Algerian culture. He spoke Arabic fluently, converted to Islam, changing his name to Nasreddin (‘Defender of the Faith’) and went on the Hajjwith his friend Slimane Ben Ibrahim.  

Étienne Dinet, Le Conciliabule.

I look forward to the sale. In the region these paintings are highly desired by both collectors and institutions for they provide us with rare windows to the past, from a time before the widespread use of photography when local artists native to the region were not practicing representative painting.

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