Portrait of the Orient

By Alexandra A Jopp

This post is for people interested in European Orientalist painters. The next series of posts will offer a quick tour of Orientalist art as it developed in Europe during the 19th century (1798-1914.) I will focus on the following collection of images: Odalisques depicted in all their sensuality, bathers, and other harem scenes surrounded by myriad colours and fabrics. My aim is to create a central online place for images and resources on the topic. This includes the material I added/wrote myself and images that I found on the web.
For the purposes of this blog, I will refer to the Orientalism as to an art-historical term. In this restrictive meaning, the term will be related to a small French group of artists of the 19th century who took the Maghreb and the Middle East as their subject matter.

Orientalism, Victor Hugo observed, had a major impact on French and English culture in the 19th century. “There is more interest in the East nowadays than there has ever been. Never before have Eastern studies made such progress. In the age of Louis XIV everyone was a Hellenist, now they are all Orientalists. Never have so many fine minds, at one and the same time, delved into the abyss that is Asia. … Everywhere the East has come to preoccupy the mind and imagination. … Everything there is large, rich, and fertile”, Hugo wrote in Les Orientales (7). Orientalism has a broad meaning that spans philosophical, architectural, literary and artistic disciplines. It intertwines not just with European history but also with the history, religion and traditions of the Orient itself. The term Orientalism is, first of all, associated with works of 19th century French Romantics. In 1978, Edward Said, in his book Orientalism, gave the first critique of the subject. Said offered three definitions of Orientalism. The first is purely academic: anyone who studies, lectures on or writes about the East could be called an Orientalist and his or her occupation could be called Orientalism, although Said noted that the term is not often used in this sense in the scholarly world. The second meaning offered by Said relates to the “ontological and epistemological” differences between East and West and the use of those distinctions as a starting point for academic, political, social and artistic examinations of the East. Thus, the term is based on a Western mentality that emphasizes the stereotypes of “Western” and “Eastern” cultures. It is Said’s third definition of Orientalism that is his most memorable, however. Orientalism, he wrote, is a “corporate institute for dealing with the Orient” in a manner that assumes Western superiority and, through its condescending approach, reinforces Euro-centric prejudices. Orientalism, he wrote, is related to an “enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively” (Said 3). Orientalists in the hegemonic West, in other words, assumed for themselves the power to define the East as a way of dominating it. The Orient, was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences. In the European narration of the Orient, there was a deliberate stress on those qualities that made the East different from the West, exiled it into an irretrievable state of 'otherness'. Among the many themes that emerge from the European narration of the Other, two appear most strikingly. The first is the insistent claim that the East was a place of lascivious sensuality, and the second that it was a realm characterized by inherent violence.” (5). Depictions of the exotic East are a recurrent theme in Orientalist art. While traveling from Spain through North Africa to Turkey and India, artists painted their experiences in the Near and Middle East. Even artists (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, as an example) who never visited the region joined in, painting scenes that existed only in their imaginations. This movement lasted about a century and captivated many of the major artists of the 19th century. The paintings covered domestic, historical, portrait, landscape, Biblical and harem themes.

Guérin, Pierre Narcisse
Bonaparte Pardoning the Insurgents in Cairo on the El Bekir square. 1806.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen
© Martine Seyve Photography
Tardieu, Jean Charles
Rest of the French army in Syena (Aswan), 2 February 1799. 1812.
Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon
© RMN (Château de Versailles) / Daniel Arnaudet / Jean Schormans
Géricault, Théodore.
A pacha, after an official portrait of sultan Mustapha V. 1818-1820.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
© Photography: J. Geleyns
Bergeret, Pierre Nolasque
Filippo Lippi, slave in Algiers, paints a portrait of his master. 1819.
Musée d'art Thomas-Henry, Cherbourg-Octeville.
© artistic photo
Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, Anne-Louis.
Portrait of Mustapha.1819.
© J. Faujour/musée Girodet, Montargis.
Ingres, Jean-Auguste Dominique. The small bather
© The Philips Collection, Washington, DC
© Photography: Edward Owen.
Odevaere, Joseph-Denis.
Canaris's naval victory over the Ottomans.1828
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.
© Photography : J. Geleyns.|
Delacroix, Eugène. The Kaid, Moroccan chief. 1837
Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts.
© RMN / Gérard Blot.
Roberts, David. The gateway to the Great Temple at Baalbec. 1841.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Delacroix, Eugène. View of Tangier. 1852-53.
© Blauel/Gnamm - ARTOTHEK
© Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Georgiana Slade Reny.
Bauernfeind, Gustav.
The ruins of the temple at Baalbec. 1882.
München, Bayerische Staatsgemäldungen,
Neue Pinakothek Bauernfeind, Bayer.
Laurens, Jules.
Start of a Roman road in Bythiniaca. 1896.
Marseille, Musée des Beaux-Arts
© Photo: J. Bernard
Bossuet, François Antoine
Landscape in Southern Spain
(with the ruins of a Moorish aquaduct on the river Adra near Ugíjar). 1850
Museum voor Schone Kunsten Gent
© Lukas - Art in Flanders 
Boislecomte, Marie-Félix-Edmond de.
The execution hall in the Alhambra, Granada. 1878
Pau, Museum of Fine Arts
© Photo Jean-Christophe Poumeyrol
Sorolla, Joaquín. Troops and slaves parading by the city gates. 1900
Private collection
© Vincent Everart
Gleyre, Charles. The Nubian woman. 1838
des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne.
© Photo: J.-C. Ducret

Decamps, Alexandre-Gabriel. The Turkish butcher. 1850.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
© Photography : J. Geleyns
Vernet, Horace. Sketch for the lion huntca. 1836.
© Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library
Deutsch, Ludwig. The morning prayer, 1906
Private collection
© NAJD Collection
Villegas Cordero, José. The slipper merchant. 1872
© The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.
Bridgman, Frederick Arthur. Towing on the Nile. 1875
Private collection
© NAJD Collection
Orientalism is especially associated with the works of French artists during the Romantic period. Interest in the East first arose in Europe in the 18th century when a fashion for Chinese vases, screens, fans and small garden houses developed in the court of Louis XIV. Over the next 100 years, Oriental influences could be increasingly found in both French and non-Gallic literature (the writings of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Goethe, for example) and art (i.e., the paintings of Eugene Delacroix, Etienne Dinet, Eugene Fromentin, Louis August Girardot, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Horace Vernet, and Alexander Decamps). While Orientalist influences spread throughout Europe, “no other country,” according to Philippe Jullian, “gave so much space to it in its exhibitions as France” (47). The French military also played a key role in bringing, as Jullian put it, “the Near East and the Middle East increasingly into the mainstream of European affairs” (28). The colonization of the Near East that began with Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt both resulted from and advanced Orientalism as defined by Said. A presumption of superiority allowed Europeans to believe that they could rightfully control the people of these lands, and the increased exposure to the Near East that resulted from military conquests led to fascination, if not always full respect, for these “exotic” lands among academics and artists. The most significant Near Eastern influences began in North Africa. This area, particularly Algiers, the capital of Algeria, would become a crossroads of Arabic, African and European cultures. More and more vessels from Provencal, Genoa and Catalonia would come into the port of Algiers to take out honey, oil, fruit and olives, and almost all of the major French impressionists worked here: Claude Monet, August Renoir, Edgar Degas and Eugene Delacroix. “There are two cities in the world: Paris and Algeria,” Jules de Goncourt said. “Paris is a city for everything; Algeria is a city for artists.”


Hugo, V. (1880). Les Orientales ; Les feuilles d'automne. Paris, Hachette et cie.
Jullian, P. (1977). The Orientalists: European Painters of Eastern Scenes. Oxford, Phaidon Press Limited. 
Kabbani, R. (1994). Imperial Fictions: Europe's Myths of Orient. London, Pandora.
Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York, Pantheon.

Related exhibitions and online features

Special Exhibitions (including upcoming, current, and past exhibitions)

Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels: From Delacroix to Kandinsky. Orientalism in Europe

The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions

Tate Britain: the Lure of the EAST

Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art: Orientalism and Ephemera

Bulletin or Journal articles

Bouffier, Jacques Olivier . "The Tours Sketchbook of Eugène Delacroix." Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 29 (1994). PDF

Kisluk-Grosheide, Daniëlle O. "A Japanned Secretaire in the Linsky Collection with Decorations After Boucher and Pillement." Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 21 (1986). PDF

Naef, Hans and Claus Virch. "Ingres to M. Leblanc: An Unpublished Letter." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 29, no. 4 (December, 1970). PDF

Grube, Ernst J., et al. "Art Treasures of Turkey." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 26, no. 5 (January, 1968).

"Anatolia" PDF
"Byzantium" PDF
"Director's Note" PDF
"Lydia" PDF
"The Ottoman Empire" PDF
"Turguerie" PDF

Eames, Clare. "The Emperor's Cabinet." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New ser., v. 17, no. 4 (December, 1958) PDF

Weinhardt, Carl J. "The Indian Taste." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New ser., v. 16, no. 7 (March, 1958) PDF


Delacroix to Klee
By Roger Benjamin, Mounira Khemir, Ursula Prunster, Lynne Thornton, Auckland Art Gallery.
Publisher: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997

Focusing on the art and aesthetic of travel, this magnificent catalog presents over 150 masterpieces of Orientalist paintings ever shown together. They present the artists' views of the European encounter with the Islamic worlds of North Africa and the Middle East. Includes over 30 rare 19th-century photographs and a brief biography of each artist and photographer as well.

By Lynne Thornton
Publisher Art Creation Realisation (October 1, 1985)

Of all the customs and traditions concerning Oriental women, the harem is certainly the most familiar and misunderstood. Travelling painters, writers and poets from the West, have all given free reign to their imagination and fantasies on the subject. To such an extent that in all the paintings from the beginning of the 18th century right up until the 1940s, reality is inseparably linked to the artist's imagination. Besides the theme of odaliscs and almahs, this book also focuses on daily life in the harem. Over 150 prestigious Orientalist painters are listed in individual monographs.

By Christine Peltre
Publisher Vilo International (April 2005)

Contains a variety of colour pictures.

Orientalism in Art
By Christine Peltre
Publisher Abbeville Press; 1st edition (February 1, 2005)

Among the more remarkable crosscurrents affecting the development of European painting in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the influence of the exotic cultures of the Middle East and North Africa. Initiated by Napoleon's incursion into Egypt in 1798, European artists (both visitors and stay-at-homes) seized on this non-European world to enrich their imaginations and palettes. Peltre's (history of contemporary art, Universite des Sciences Humaines, Strasbourg, France) scintillating overview of Orientalism concentrates largely on the French response but also reaches out to an equally telling but briefer consideration of English, German, Italian, and American work. Without slighting the impact of European imperial ventures, political events, and literary influences, the author convincingly structures her historical synthesis within the broader contours and conventions of European painting. In addition, there are vivid characterizations of works by acknowledged masters like Delacroix, Ingres, and Matisse as well as due consideration of almost innumerable lesser lights like Lewis, Fromentin, and Gerome. Although the sculptural and architectural ramifications of Orientalism are neglected, the excellent text and the plethora of exquisitely reproduced but unfamiliar images are reason enough to acquire this splendid volume.