In the 19th
century, a fad for the Orient appeared. The artists were inspired
by its luxury, its mystery and of course, the supernatural that
surrounded this part of the world. But this new craze for Orientalism
was also the reflection of several historical events such as:
-the Egyptian campaign (1798-1799)
-the Greek war for Independence (1821-1829)
-the conquest of Algiers by the French (1830)
-the opening of the Suez Canal (1869)
-the progressive dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire because of
rivalries and of colonial ambitions.
My presentation will be divided into three part: a history of Orientalism,
Orientalism in the arts, and Edward Said and Orientalism.
Definition of the term "Orientalism"
Orientalism is the study
of Near and Far-Eastern societies and cultures by westerners (first
But it can also refer to the imitation or depiction of aspects of
Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists (second
The first meaning of the term is mainly used to refer to the study
of the East during the period of European imperialism in the 18th
and 19th centuries. Nowadays, when we talk about "Orientalism",
it is mainly with regard to its second meaning, that is to say "Orientalism"
as a pictorial genre.
Who were the first "Orientalists"?
The first "Orientalists"
were 19th century scholars who translated the writings of the Orient
into English, based on the supposition that an effective colonial
conquest required knowledge of the conquered peoples. This is the
idea of knowledge as a power exposed by Said (a Palestinian scholar).
Said thinks that by knowing the Orient, the West came to own it.
There is the image of the Orient as passive while the West was active.
So according to Said, it is imperialism which motivated Orientalism.
Without imperialism, westerners would never have study Near and
Far-Eastern societies and culture.
image of the oriental people
By the mid-19th century
"oriental studies" was becoming an established academic
discipline. However, while scholarly study expanded, so did racist
attitudes and popular stereotypes. Eastern art and literature were
still seen as "exotic" and as inferior to the Western
ideals. The East’s political and economic systems were generally
thought to be feudal "oriental despotism". Many critical
theorists regard this form of Orientalism as being representative
of the Westerners' colonial mind, justified by the concept of the
"white man's burden". The "white man's burden"
was the idea that the white men had to civilized, to educate and
to christianized peoples of other religion.
of oriental styles
Imitations of oriental
styles began in the 18th century with the Turqueries that could
be found in clothing, literature, music and furniture.
Then, from the Renaissance to the 18th century, Western designers
attempted to imitate the technical sophistication of Chinese ceramics,
this was called Chinoiserie. Pleasure pavilions in "Chinese
taste" also appeared in Europe.
After 1860, Japonaiserie became an important influence in the western
arts. James Mc Neill Whistler's "Peacock Room" is one
of the finest works of the genre. The Peacock Room was once the
dining room in the London home of Frederick R. Leyland, a wealthy
ship-owner. He commissioned the American-born artist James McNeill
Whistler to paint the dining room. The painting in the room is called
"The Princess from the land of Porcelain".
of the Orient in art
We can find depictions
of Islamic Moors (Moslems who lived in Spain in the Middle-Ages)
in Medieval and Renaissance art, but it was not until the 19th century
that "Orientalism" in the arts became an established theme.
In these works, we find mainly the myth of the Orient as exotic
and corrupt. Such works typically concentrated on Near-Eastern Islamic
cultures. Artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon
Gérôme painted many depictions of Islamic culture.
Sensuality was seen as acceptable in the exotic Orient as we can
see with the painting The Turkish Bath by Jean Auguste Dominique
Ingres. If Ingres would have painted Occidental women naked, it
would have chocked many people. But sensuality was seen as part
of the Orient and so as acceptable. For the artists, Orientalism
was a way of expressing their erotic fantasy.
Examples of Orientalism in the arts
It is first through literature
that depictions of the Orient appeared. Indeed, in 1704, Antoine
Galland published the first French translation of The Arabian Nights.
And in 1721, the Persian Letters by Montesquieu drew the public’s
attention to the East. But the depictions of the Orient that we
can find in literature are sometimes romanticized and convey a false
image to the Westerners.
It is for example the
case with a poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Kubla Khan (1816).
Kubla Khan describes the beauty and the sacredness of an eastern
city, Xanadu, thanks to rich, sensual and exotic images. In the
first stanza of the poem, we can find a lot of reference to nature:
“sacred river”, “sea”, “fertile ground”, “gardens”, “rills”, “tree”,
“forests”, “hills”, and “spots of greenery”. There is a dominant
impression of light (“bright”, “sunny”) but with strangeness due
to element of darkness (“sunless sea”, “caverns”). We find also
elements of religion, sacredness: “Alph, the sacred river”, “incense”.
We have the impression to be in an imaginative country. So the vocabulary
used throughout this stanza and throughout the poem by Coleridge
helps to convey an atmosphere of mystery and supernatural. It also
helps to convey an image of the East as both fascinating, luxurious
In painting too, the
Orient is often represented with many distortions. The oriental
men are often depicted as feminine and weak, yet strangely dangerous.
It is for example the case with the painting of Eugène Delacroix,
Arabe sellant son cheval, or with the one of Jean-Léon Gérôme,
La Prière dans la maison. We can see that even alone or praying
the Arabs are depicting with arms, knives, which makes them appear
As for the representation of oriental women, they are both eager
to be dominated and strikingly exotic. An interesting thing to notice
is that the word “harem” comes from the Arabic word, “haram”, that
means “which is forbidden”. In the orientalist paintings, this meaning
seems to have been totally forgotten. The women are very often naked
in the paintings as it is the case in Odalisque by Delacroix and
in Bain dans le harem by Gérôme for example. By seeing
these paintings, we have the feeling that if we go to the East,
it would be easy to go in harems and to see sensual naked women
everywhere, which is obviously not the case. So, the orientalist
art contributed to spread a false and sometimes negative image of
the East and that is what Edward Said criticizes.
Said and Orientalism:
westerners' "romanticized" and distorted vision of the
East in the 19th century, the word "Orientalism" carried
no negative connotations. "Oriental" was simply understood
as the opposite of "occidental". The word began to develop
negative connotations following the publication of the work Orientalism
by the Palestinian scholar Edward Said. Said emphasized the relationship
between power and knowledge, in particular regarding European views
of the Islamic Arab world. Said argued that Orient and Occident
worked as oppositional terms, so that the "Orient" was
constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture. He studied
many works of European scholars and writers specialized in the peoples
of the Middle East in order to denounce the relations of power between
the colonizer and the colonized in their texts. His book Orientalism
is one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies. Said later
developed and modified his ideas in his book Culture and Imperialism
2- Criticisms of Said
Many scholars now use Said's work to contradict the old Western
ideas about the Orient. But others, such as the historian Bernard
Lewis, also criticized Said's theory. Lewis argues that Westerners
contributed to the study of Eastern cultures during the Enlightenment
and Victorian eras and that Said ignores those contributions. Moreover,
it is logical, natural, that other culture will be identified as
"different", and even if many distortions and fantasies
certainly existed, they were not always negative and the notion
of the Orient as a negative mirror image of the West is not wholly
true. Furthermore, in the 20th century, derogatory or stereotyped
portrayal of Westerners also appeared in many works of Indian, Chinese
and Japanese artists. And recently, the term Occidentalism has been
used to refer to the negative views of the Western world that can
sometimes be found in Eastern societies today.
it is important to say that the East began to fascinate Westerners
and became a new source of inspiration for the artists. A new artistic
movement, Orientalism, was born from this fascination. However,
Orientalism in the 19th century was not always representative of
what and how the East really was. Many distortions and stereotypes
existed, as we saw, and led to some criticisms from scholars like
Edward Said. So, the Orient lost its mystery for a long time now,
but it continues to fascinate since it is still in the heart of
the debate nowadays.
Mc Dowall, David. An Illustrated History of Britain. Edinburgh:
and Carter. Imperialism and Orientalism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
Anthony. Lords of all the World. New Haven and London: Yale
University Press, 1995.
Edward W. Culture et Impérialisme. Saint-Amand-Montrond :
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