Not necessarily categorized as a movement, Orientalism is the term used for a group of art works produced in the XIX century that portrays images specifically of the Near and Middle East. Artists were now able to easily commute to countries like Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula, because of the new progress in railroads and steam engines. There was a sincerity in the topographic representations of the landscapes of Northern Africa, as well as in portraying the ethnographic qualities, even though some works represent some preconceived and prejudice ideas of the Orient.
The Orientalism paintings were realized with high precision of images, and many artists have similarities in their style. Also, the artists who produced these painting would mostly follow the same themes, like daily life activities, the harems (houses destined to women), sultans, or the cruel slave markets. Also, they would paint landscapes and buildings, sometimes of places they have visited and sometimes of purely imaginative places.
Ingres, a Neo-Classical painter, never once visited the orient but was influenced so much by the idea of it. In The Turkish Bath, the artist fanaticizes a scene of erotic and seductive female nudes. The painting is done on a round canvas as if it was a peeking hole for the viewer alone to see. As a contrast to this, we have Antoine-Jean Gros and his grandiose historical scenes that show Islamic clothing and architecture, as well as landscapes, as a way to justify Napoleon’s Campaign in Egypt and satisfy the demands of the imperialism, as seen in The Battle of the Pyramids.
In the painting, The Bab-El-Gharbi Road, Laghouat, Eugene Fromentin was able to capture the essence of Orientalism itself. Portraying a daily event, the artist shows soldiers resting in the shade of a torrid day. He balances the hot colors of the houses and sand with the cool blue sky. William Holman Hunt was also significantly influenced by the Orient, as he visited three times to gather cultural and visual references for his paintings. He used the North-African landscapes to depict religious themes, as seen in The Scapegoat, representing one of the two sacrificial goats for the Jewish ritual of the Day of Atonement, described in the Leviticus. The landscape chosen is the surroundings of the Dead Sea, and the goat wears a red adornment on its head, symbolizing the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Hunt is determined to represent this scene as realistic as possible and specifically tracked down a white goat to use as a study.
Jean-Léon Gérôme was an Academic painter who was also influenced by the Orientalism, formally trained in the art ateliers of Charles-Gabriel Gleyre and Paul Delaroche. Gérôme visited the ruins of Pompeii and started to specialize in ancient Greece and Rome history and daily life scenes. He was able to focus on the personal aspects of scenes of different themes – like the Muslim religion, the ruthless slave markets, or the exotically sensual bathhouses – as opposed to a political approach to these subjects. This started in 1853 when Gérôme began taking regular trips to Turkey, Egypt, and Asia Minor.
In his painting Public Prayer in the Mosque of Amr, Cairo, Gérôme carefully enriched the daily religious scene with incredible detail, giving an authentic feel to it, as if the artist witnessed the site himself. In fact, he probably did not see this scene, for the mosque was already in disuse when he first visited. Like many artists at the time, Gérôme based this painting on sketches made during his trips. His precision with details and realistic style gives a photographic feel to the painting. The position of the faithful people of the mosque and the columns match and join in a cluster of vertical figures on the left of the painting, but at the same time, the columns lead the viewer’s eyes to a far away blank wall. He highlights the main figure who is praying, wearing red and gold clothing, with a mighty sword and is standing on an ornate rug.
French and British artists were the most influenced by the Orient, and consequently the most to produce images based on these cultures. In part, this was caused by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Orientalism’s popularity fell at the end of the XIX century, but the images and culture of the Orient continued to strongly influence artists until the XX century, like Pierre Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, and Paul Klee.
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