B oth real and imagined, the ‘Orient’ - as the lands occupying North Africa, the Middle East, the Levant, and Turkey were called in the nineteenth century - has attracted numerous painters, writers, and musicians seeking knowledge and discovery, stirring up passions and simulating their creativity.
Some painters pursued their dreams and quest for knowledge for the rest of their lives. A few even chose to follow a new spiritual path by converting to Islam. The expression of this quest lies at the heart of Sotheby’s twice-yearly Orientalist Sales, and a newly published book on the subject by Mathias Ary Jan with the collaboration of art historian Claire Maingon, Oriental Dreams.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many European painters witnessed for themselves the authentic beauty of the Mediterranean and North African light, subjected themselves to the desert’s harshness, and immersed themselves in cultural and ancestral traditions. From Egypt to Algeria, from the Sahara to Palestine, artists including Rudolf Ernst, Ludwig Deutsch, Osman Hamdi Bey, Eugène Fromentin, Narcisse Berchère, Arthur Bridgman, Félix Ziem, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Hermann Corrodi, Etienne Dinet, and Jacques Majorelle were fascinated by the atmosphere, the colours and the customs of what they perceived as the cradle of civilization. They faithfully observed its landscapes, architecture, decorative arts, and scenes of daily life, becoming the trailblazers of a movement in art which captured lands beyond the reach of most Europeans.
What did the ‘Orient’ mean for nineteenth-century writers, painters, and photographers? In his Dictionary of Received Ideas, published posthumously in 1913, Gustave Flaubert defines the Orientalist as ‘a man who has travelled a great deal’. Who were these men (and women) who continue to shed light on a world which, before then, few people in the West knew about, and which has greatly changed since? It is easy to forget all the perils they faced on their travels, given how easy it has become today to visit countries outside one's own. On their journeys, storytellers of a new kind sometimes risked their lives to reveal a world still relatively unknown, through their art.
Answers to these questions, and a similar wish to pass on these intrepid artist-travellers’ impressions, are the inspiration behind Oriental Dreams, a major addition to scholarship on Orientalist art, which retraces in 320 pages and 250 illustrations the history of Orientalist painting. "After encountering the nineteenth-century Orientalist movement over thirty years ago, I now want people to be able to travel in these artists’ company, artists who never cease to dazzle and amaze as the years pass and further discoveries are made. I have travelled around the world during the last decade in order to pay homage to these groundbreaking artists and to unite in a single volume the most representative examples of the genre, to show how the region looked a century and more ago" says Mathias Ary Jan.
Oriental Dreams tells the story of Orientalist art through vibrant reproductions of paintings and texts, articulated around three main themes: the Orient as it was perceived in nineteenth-century Paris; the multiple trajectories of the painter-travellers; and the self-assimilation of some of these artists into the societies they depicted. This book transports us to a lost, but nonetheless powerful and engaging world beyond our cultural frame of reference.
Mathias’s Picks from the Orientalist Sale
Mathias Ary Jan, founder of the eponymous art gallery, is an eclectic collector himself. He entered the art market at the age of nineteen, choosing to become an art dealer. Passionate and self-taught, he quickly specialised in nineteenth-century paintings (particularly from the Belle Epoque) and, upon discovering Orientalist works, was immediately captivated by their aesthetic.
Thirty years on, he continues to champion the Orientalist movement through his gallery in Paris and advises collectors and international museums alike. He has also become the acknowledged expert on painter-traveller Félix Ziem and is preparing the catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.