F or centuries, western artists have turned to North Africa and the Middle East as a source of inspiration and wonder. “The Orient”, a descriptor coined in the nineteenth century, was understood as a cultural and geographical concept inextricably linked to Islam and defined by Turkey, the Levant, Egypt and North Africa.
The relationship between Europe and the Orient developed gradually. The Crusades of the Middle Ages had ignited European interest in the Orient, an interest that was reactivated following the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 and that would develop over the course of the century. The Orientalist genre in European art was really born in the eighteenth century thanks to diplomatic exchanges between the Ottoman sublime Porte and European powers.
Ambassadors to Constantinople brought with them artists to record diplomatic encounters and paint portraits of Ottoman notables, and the Sultans themselves commissioned European painters to paint their portraits. Interest in the Orient grew after Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquering of Egypt in 1798 and the subsequent British seizure of power in 1801. French colonisation of the Maghreb in the nineteenth century augmented European presence in the East, and this was shortly succeeded by the opening of Turkey as a destination following the end of Graeco-Ottoman conflict. This expansion prompted a new “grand tour”. Many artists, Eugène Delacroix amongst them, only undertook this voyage once; therefore, they had to collect enough sketches, photographs and artefacts to recreate Eastern scenes in their studios. Some artists could not afford the trip at all, and so created imagined impressions based on the observations of artist travellers and writers.
From the Renaissance through to the eighteenth century, Orientalist elements featured in art, architecture and even fashion. Prompted by a post-Revolution surge in “Egyptomania”, the nineteenth century in France saw the apogee of the genre. In no other period was the output of Orientalist art so great, so diverse, or in such high demand. Many artists sought a new departure for their work and were captivated by the novelty, mystery and otherness of the East.
There are three primary reasons that the East was such an appealing subject to the western artist and audience. First, the vibrancy of culture and landscape was a shock to the senses. Artists’ diaries reveal their fascination with the intensity of sunlight and the captivating colours and atmosphere of city streets; Georges Clairin described it as a “dream of a life”, and it was one that mesmerised the European audience. Second, though Islamic culture differed vastly to the predominantly Christian Europe, visitors to the Orient nevertheless felt that they were returning to their historical and biblical roots. Numerous painters, especially British ones, used their art as a vehicle to recount Biblical stories in an authentic setting.
Third, many individuals saw Orientalism as a means of indulging in visions free from the constraints of western modernism and conservatism; revelling in a rejection of industrialisation in favour of the East’s raw authenticity.
In his seminal text Orientalism (1978), Edward Said posits that Orientalism had a politicising, colonialising, demeaning and political agenda. His critique was addressed primarily at text, notably Edward William Lane’s An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians but Orientalist paintings have become tarred by the same brush. While it is true that some Orientalist art is the product of artist’s imaginations run wild (no western male painter, for example, would have had access to the Sultan’s harem!), generally it is a genuine attempt by its creators to recreate a world – its colours, mores, and costumes – encountered during, or inspired by, their travels.
Sotheby’s Orientalist sale will take place on the 30 April 2019. Bringing together paintings and sculpture representing the Near and Middle East, the sale will include scenes of worship, street life, and extensive desert views, to exquisitely worked costume bronzes, providing fascinating insights into the Arab, Ottoman and Islamic worlds of the time.