The term Orientalism confused me at first, due to my ignorance which led me to believe that Orientalism could only refer to art from the Far East. I then discovered that the Europeans of the 19th century considered Middle-Eastern and some African cultures to be Oriental, because in fact, the word orient refers to the places of or things from the East. I suppose that many people of that era didn’t travel farther east in general, due to the dangers of travelling in “uncivilized” environs, but instead left it up to the military and adventurers to travel and trade in the nearby countries of the Middle-East and North Africa. A number of artists with a bit of adventurism in their hearts would find themselves looking for new subjects and perspectives of life in these eastern countries. They looked to not only bring home some new and exotic views of far-off lands, but to garner public attention when they came back home with fascinating stories of their travels.
I forget sometimes that most of us have “seen it all”, as television and the internet have made the far ends of the world easily accessible, visually, and there is no real driving need to see what lies over the ocean. We already know what’s there...kind of...basically. Not so, in the old days. The French, British, and Russian artists of the 1800s often brought home the clothing of the countries they visited, and their patrons would dress up “in costume” and commission to have their portraits painted. It was something of a fad in those times. Common themes in Orientalist scenes were sometimes Biblical, (like Jean-Léon Gérôme's Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ) but oftentimes patrons were encouraged to dress up to play the part of a hero or heroine in an Oriental tale.
The great thing about Orientalism is that is was even propagated by artists who had not left their studios in Europe; by those who merely used their imaginations, imitated the artworks by artists who had returned from afar, and made use of costumes which had become readily available, in order to increase their status and earnings. Frenchman Eugène Delacroix was one such artist, whose intense 1824 painting titled The Massacre at Chios was painted before he’d ever went to Greece. The massacre of the Greeks on the Isle of Chios, by the Ottomans, was a hot topic with the Europeans in 1822. In fact, 20,000 civilians perished and 70,000 were driven from the region. Delacroix, who was looking for a controversial subject that would bring attention to his new “less than Academic style of painting”, chose to follow the Orientalist path, and did so very successfully.
Besides the Eastern wars, the chance to paint nude women in harems and exotic settings was a likely enticement to some artists, but several chose to create realistic and accurate scenes of the lifestyles of Egyptians, Syrians, Turks, and other Central Asians. Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted A Jewish Wedding in the style of Eugène Delacroix; Jean-Léon Gérôme, William Holman Hunt, and even Wassily Kandinsky (who was more well known for abstract art) played a part in the spread of Orientalism. The term had become quite broad as to encompass anything and anyone from distant lands outside of European origins. In some opinions, the spread of the Orientalist artworks by many artists of the 19th century brought home the reality of foreign peoples’ daily lives and lands (not just the horrific battle scenes and tales of debauchery), which in turn led to open-mindedness about different cultures and lifestyles.
Back in 2011, the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung held a wonderful exhibition on the art movement, titled Orientalism in Europe: From Delacroix to Kandinsky, and this year there’s a closer-to-home event: "The Orient Express", a modern Orientalist-style group show/art exhibition which will be open on March 31, April 7 and other scheduled times at The Galleries, in Concord, NC. Be on the lookout for upcoming events in your area this year, as paintings by famous and talented Orientalist artists are definitely worth seeing, up close and in person.