Marvels of the East: Orientalism in 19th and 20th Century Art


Onaiza Drabu

Young India Fellowship Program


In his magnum opus titled Orientalism, Edward Said laid forth the concept of the Orient being ‘almost a European invention’ and a ‘place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences’ (E. W. Said, Orientalism). Orientalism, in simpler words, is looked upon as a patronizing attitude the West adopts towards the Orient and based on a characterizing distinction between the Orient and Occident. Beginning early 19th century, the Western Civilization’s increased contact with the Oriental led to conquests of these lands; not just politically but culturally as well. European art during this period adopted and reinterpreted the Orient in its work, propagating the mysticism associated with it. Two themes which emerge steadily are those of the Orient as being immoral and barbaric. The immorality was highlighted with the use of erotic motifs which portrayed the Oriental women as exotic sexual beings. The theme of barbarism also visible through the scenes of battle within Oriental communities suggests conflict and spread the perception that the Orientals aren’t fit to rule themselves. This leads us to question the agenda behind the art that emerged during the period of 19th and 20th century. Was the art work produced used as propaganda for the civilizing mission of the west or was it an outlet for the imagined, eroticized ‘other’ created solely as an escape from the then Christian, European world? Through a study of the select works of two 19th century French painters, Delacroix and Ingres and two iconic painters of the 20th century; Matisse and Renoir, I seek to examine this.


Said defines Orientalism as a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the ‘Orient’ and ‘the Occident’. It is this distinction on which this entire discipline revolves; the distinction based on ‘the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures’. This ‘cultural hegemony at work gives Orientalism its durability and the strength’ (E. W. Said, Orientalism).


Till the late 18th century, Europe had little contact with the east. Up until this point, the interaction was restricted to relations of trade and intermittent military campaigns. In the early 19th century, when Napoleon attacked Egypt, the western contact increased and many travelers created art works being inspired by what they saw. Painters of Oriental themes embodied in their works images of war and destruction, military brutality and, most importantly, sexual mysticism through the common motif of harems. Some of the initial works were intended as ‘propaganda in support of French imperialism, depicting the East as a place of backwardness, lawlessness, or barbarism enlightened and tamed by French rule’ (Meagher). There was a ‘repertory of images [that] kept coming up: the sensual woman who is there to be sort of used by the man, the East as a kind of mysterious place full of secrets and monsters’ (E. Said). These images were distinct from what the European was used to seeing in and around him. This immoral, non-Christian, barbaric orient was thus successfully reinforced superiority through an othering of it, especially on moral and behavioural terms.

As Said would say, ‘The Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”


Posing a view contrary to Said’s, John MacKenzie’s in his work, ‘Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts (1995)’, concludes that the imagery portrayed in Orientalist art was ‘for the most part, not so much attempting to diminish the ‘other’, as to liberate the ‘self’ from the narrow constraints increasingly imposed in Europe by middle-class convention and the exigencies of an industrial society’ (MacKenzie). A study on Orientalist art asserts that paintings of the Orientalist genre do not belong to a school identifiable by a definitive style. According to the author, the three broad themes that exist in Orientalist paintings are those of the paintings as documentary record, those of the paintings furthering a political propaganda and  finally those that deal with exoticism of the East usually through portrayal of the ‘fleshy female body’ (Dellios) in the setting of a hamam or a harem1.






While most painters stuck to the theme of the erotic Orient, the 19th century painter Delacroix, displayed his fascination for the East through what can be arguably identified as a propaganda of depicting the east as uncivilized. He painted Death of Sardanapalus (1827) and Fanatics of Tangiers(1838), both violent in theme, motifs and colours. The characters in the Fanatics of Tangiers are religious dervishes, whose actions seem ritualistic and in a state of frenzy. Both that and The Death of Sardanapalus have characters with contorted body shapes and ferocious facial expressions which gives them bestial and barbarous characteristics. Delacroix’s paintings are an example of paintings characterizing the Orient as savage and in need of civilizing.



Delacroix’s contemporary and adversary, Ingres, often combined two of his preferred themes; the female nude and the Orient, to create paintings that eroticize the East. Of the two that I shall examine, one is an Odalisque2 in the setting of a harem and the other portrays the scene in a hamam. Ingres is known to have never visited the North Africa or the Near East but painted both The Grand Odalisque (1814) and The Turkish Bath (1862) using details copied from travel letters and others' accounts3. The Turkish bath is entirely set in a harem, a territory which, possibly, no male artist personally witnessed. The painting, which is almost voyeuristic in nature, has predominantly white and Caucasian women and the only women darker are those in positions of servitude. His inaccessibility to the scenes he depicts reaffirms the historical inconsistency of them. Similarly, in The Grand Odalisque which is often criticized for its anatomical inconsistencies amongst other things, the model is a white woman but the presence of symbols of opulence and luxury alien to the western world, the rich blue hues and the model’s headgear bring out the strong presence of the Orient. This strengthens our hypothesis of his paintings being a thinly veiled attempt at using the exotic to depict women of otherwise European appearance in sexualized and passive poses. Ingres thus, painted for his audience; predominantly western male and for them these ‘harem scenes evoked a sense of cultivated beauty and pampered isolation to which many Westerners aspired. (Meagher)’




Similar to Ingres, the 20th century painter Renoir on had never been to Algeria till 1881 despite painting the famous Odelisque in 1870. Post the visit he expressed disappointment on not being able to find women to model for him in Algiers. He thus continued to paint idealised French women4 as exotic eastern girls in harem scenes with elaborate carpets, jewellery and other Oriental motifs. Although he painted Algerian women as he wanted to see them, his successive work from his travels in Algeria is a study of the unfamiliar culture with paintings that include landscapes and ethnography. He distanced himself from the colonizing mission of France and painted what could be classified as documentary evidence.



Another famous painter, Henri Matisse, in his series of Odalisques, displays Oriental women in inviting positions with colourful, exotic garb while characteristically eastern artifacts scatter the background. Every painting seems to pay attention to detail; there is a constant presence of oriental motifs like the Turkish chair, a occasional vase, Persian robes, checker boards, tambourines etc. The paintings are colourful; there are hues of reds, blues, yellows and green and patterns which characterize eastern art forms. Like most of his predecessors and contemporaries, the lavish exotic interiors were of his own creation and of a possible harem. There is little dispute in this as affirming this belief Matisse once said that he paints ‘Odalisques in order to paint the nude. Otherwise, how is the nude to be painted without being artificial.’5 Matisse journeyed to Morocco in 1913 and never made didactic painting or signed a manifesto, and there is scarcely one reference to a political event - let alone an expression of political opinion - to be found anywhere in his writings. (Hughes). For him, painting the nude in an exotic setting was less about Orientalism and more about experimenting with art forms




What is common in all the paintings of Ingres, Renoir and Matisse, is a glaring disconnect between the ‘Western perception and the Eastern reality’ (Fowler) . This disconnect in Orientalist painters at that time was exemplified by reactions to an 1860 painting by Henriette Brown, the only artist who managed to gain access to one of the harems. Her paintings show the harems as a familial space with demure, fully clad lady in dignified settings; there are no naked concubines or bath scenes. When displayed in 1861, it is noted that the audience was disappointed. This revelation leads to the explicit recognition that these painters created an imagery of exoticism to appeal to their audience.  None of them seems to have used their art forms for expression of a political opinion or under the influence or commissioning of a ruler.


This analysis constructs a possible chronological structure in our minds. It leads us to believe that there may have been an initial propaganda behind encouraging travelers and painters to visit the East. This propaganda could well have been linked to the civilizing mission of the West in order to establish a cultural superiority through the art works that the rulers commissioned. However, although this may have shaped the earlier travelogues and encouraged people to inhabit these places in the early 19th century, which is when the civilizing mission started, this propaganda seems to have evolved over time, into an appreciative art form. The seminal works of what is now classified as Orientalist art come primarily from the later 19th century and early 20th century and does not seem to have a political motivation behind it. Rather, it led to influencing of western traditions of art and architecture by these works. Conclusive proof on this subject is not available and the jury continues to be out on what would possibly be an eternal debate. However there is scope for more research in this field and it could be looked at to construct a stronger argument for either side.


From the evidence gathered, it is clear that these works of art were primarily a form of entertainment and release from the seemingly prudish European Christian times. While most of them were created without having first-hand accounts, little changed when reality was portrayed as in the case of Henriette Browne. The audience constantly refused to accept the reality and would much rather imagine the Orient as a sexually liberated, colourful and culturally endowed other. The immorality or barbarity that later started being inferred from these paintings does not appear to have been intended by the apolitical painters we examined. The paintings were merely used as a metaphoric screen onto which the European male artists imagined the lives of women they could not see and what they projected was inaccurate and kitsch. At its best it embodied the overriding theme of beauty and both in the body of the female nude and in the evidence of the culture that surrounds her in the painting and at its worst it was lurid, voyeuristic and demeaning.



1.       Hamam is a Turkish bath while a Harem is an enclosed quarter for women. Etemologically, the term derives its origins from the Arabic ‘haram’, a forbidden place; a sanctuary. Although its literal meaning is ‘something forbidden or kept safe’ it is a common term for ‘women's quarters’. Due to this secluded nature of the Harem, there are few reliable accounts of life in any of them at any time, and most accounts in literature are conjectural.

2.       Odalisque is a female slave or concubine in a harems

3.       Ingres was inspired by The Letters written by Lady Mary Montagu who experienced the Orient first hand. However, her accounts are often thought to be exaggerated.

4.       His long time model and lover Lise Trehot modeled for many of his Odalisque paintings

5.       Quotation from a letter written in the 1930’s


Works Cited

Dellios, Paulette. "Reframing the Gaze: European Orientalist Art in the Eyes of Turkish Women Artists." 2010. 27 October 2013 <>

Fowler, Susanne. "Istanbul Museum Parses ‘1001 Faces of Orientalism’." July 2013. New York Times. 27 October 2013 <>.

Hughes, Robert. Henri Matisse. 27 October 2013 <>.

MacKenzie, John M. Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts. Manchester University Press , 1995.

Meagher, Jennifer. Orientalism in Nineteenth-Century Art; Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. 2004. October 2013 <>.

Said, Edward. "On Orientalism; An interview by Sut Jhally." 1998. 27 October 2013 <>.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1979.


Received on 16.06.2014

Revised on 21.07.2014

Accepted on 28.07.2014     

© A&V Publication all right reserved

Research J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 5(3): July-September, 2014, 290-294