Art/Museums logo

Noble Dreams Wicked Pleasures

Orientalism in America, 1870-1930

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, Massachusetts

June 6 to September 4, 2000

The Walters Art Gallery

Baltimore

October 1 to December 10, 2000

Mint Museum of Art

Charlotte, N.C.

February 3, 2001 to April 23, 2001

Catalogue of same name by Holly Edwards with essays by Brian T. Allen, Steven C. Caton, Zeynep Çelik and Oleg Grabar, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 241, $39.95.

"The Siesta" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman

"The Siesta," by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928), oil on canvas, 11 ¼ by 17 inches, 1878, private collection, courtesy of the Spanierman Gallery, New York

By Carter B. Horsley

Orientalism refers to Western visions of Near Eastern aesthetics. Some American artists, such as Frederic Edwin Church (see The City Review article on a major exhibition on this artist) and Sanford Gifford, began enchanted with it as early as the 1870s, followed soon by Louis Comfort Tiffany, R. Swain Gifford, Frederick Bridgman and Edwin Lord Weeks and many others near the turn of the century, many of whom had studied under Jean-Léon Gerome in Paris.

In his introduction to the catalogue, Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, wrote that "By 1900, Orientalist themes were becoming common in the emerging advertising and mass entertainment industries, and by the 1920s Orientalist imagery had been appropriated for use in film posters, cigarette packs, popular music, fraternal organizations, and fashion." "The common threat," he continued, "was consumer interest in the Orient as exotic and, often, erotic."

Many of the catalogue's essays were written by scholars who were not specialists in American art and while "a number of exhibitions have brought together the exotic imagery of the Near East…none seems to have approached the subject with an attempt to cross so many boundaries between high and low art," Mr. Conforti continued.

In her preface, Holly Edwards, the exhibition's curator, makes the intriguing statement that "Orientalism is best considered a symptom, a representation, or a therapeutic response to changing circumstances rather than a static intellectual stance or a monolithic phenomenon." Furthermore, she observed that "Representations of Ancient Egypt, India, Tibet and even Persia were difficult to incorporate into the exhibition without losing conceptual clarity," explaining her decision to define the "'Orient' of this exhibition as it was most often conceived in the later nineteenth century - the accessible but still exotic regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including the Levant and North Africa."

"The decorative arts represented in the exhibition comprise a group of superior pieces which seemed to suggest how the Aesthetic Movement intersected with Orientalism. I included them with the conviction that acts of artistic homage or appropriation can reveal underlying attitudes of cross-cultural perception and representation," Ms. Edwards continued.

Indeed, one of the fascinations with Orientalism is how nicely it blends into other artistic styles of the 19th Century such as Pre-Raphaelism and Art Nouveau as well as the Aesthetic Movement. Orientalism, Pre-Raphaelism and Art Nouveau are various manifestations of lush, richly embued, symbolic decorative aesthetics, often tinged if not overwhelmed by a sense of history and prior historic periods. The Aesthetic Movement, of course, emerged from these influences to produce a "modern" style based on them.

In his excellent essay, Oleg Grabar finds the "roots" of American Orientalism in "the Protestant search for the space of the biblical revelations," European aristocratic taste, popular culture in freemasonry and other fraternal organizations, and "the spirit of skeptical curiosity and adventure."

In discussing early American scholarship on the subject, Mr. Grabar notes that "Most of the time, the present was simply ignored," adding that "Dramatic representations of sacred history, remarkably few in number because of Protestantism's uneasy relationship to a religious imagery usually associated with Catholicism, hardly reflect an awareness of the Orient as it actually was or else are set in a routine Greco-Roman and classical setting."

"For many centuries," he continued, "expensive items in fancy techniques like silk, inlaid metalwork, or carpet weaving came from the East. It can be argued that Islamic art was for centuries the luxury component of life in Christian courts or ecclesiastical establishments. Except for rugs, whose presence was consistent throughout the centuries, this component lost some power during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but it reappeared in the eighteenth century with the fascinating phenomenon of an 'oriental' taste for exotic clothes, for luxurious interior decoration of private houses, and especially for collecting objects of art or curios of all sorts from the East."

Mr. Grabar also notes that Washington Irving, the early 19th Century American writer, had become fascinated when he was a consular official in Spain with the Alhambra in Granada, and that Louis Sullivan, the architect, had acquired books in Paris about Islamic architecture and "transformed some of the design principles of the fourteenth -century madrasa of Sultan Hasan in Cairo for the composition and decoration of the Wainwright building and mausoleum, both in St. Louis."

In discussing the phenomenon of near consistent Near Eastern "oriental" costuming of many American fraternal groups by the end of the nineteenth century, Mr. Grabar notes that the "sources" of this "lie in part in the mystical acknowledgment that truth and wisdom come from the East," but added that "this particular 'East' is a simpleminded vision of the contemporary, Islamic East, as it was proclaimed and paraded, among other places, in the World's Fairs of the nineteenth century."

"The Orient," Mr. Grabar continued, "has become a toy, a game, a required masquerade away from normal and real life. This is the Orient that has dominated the world of advertising until our own times and in much of the movie industry. Curiously poised between desire and repulsion, beauty and ugliness, it is an Orient that answers deep psychological and social needs."

Mr. Grabar's observations about the attitude of curious American travelers and adventurers is particularly interesting:

"It is true, of course, that even more than today, the occasionally greedy obsequiousness of tourist servicing and the constant presence of beggars were the only contact a visitor had with the inhabitants of foreign places. Yet, beyond the sarcasms, evenly spread over compatriots and natives, these accounts demonstrate little interest in the people, much more in the monuments, especially pious or historical ones, although even they receive their fair share of criticism. The Orient only matters as providing illustrations for some significant moments in the long history that led to the American Promised Land, and its very misery is a demonstration of the latter's success. By itself, it was dirty and ignorant, even savage, without the redeeming values of commonly accepted artistic treasures found in Europe."

Mr. Grabar concludes his provocative essay by stating that the American "involvement" with the "Orient" can be explained in part by its offering of a "primarily sensuous" vicariousness and in part by its providing a "texture of beauty for an appropriate setting for life," adding that "the life to be led in that setting was regulated by rules other than those of the 'Orient.'" "The latter was always something 'other,' a past from which one has escaped or the theatrical performance of a slightly wicked vision of pleasure," Mr. Grabar wrote.

In her interesting catalogue essay, Holly Edwards notes that much Western "scholarship" about the "Orient" has "generated an increasingly nuanced appreciation of the imperialistic agendas, gender inequities, and racial prejudices that underlie such depictions of the erotic, exotic East and the processes of power that they make manifest." French Orientalist paintings, she continued, "depict an Orient of naked harem girls and tyrannical despots, which served to fascinate, titillate and ultimately flatter the nineteenth-century French viewer. Such pictures can only be understood with reference to France's protracted colonial machinations in North Africa, and to French cultural and visual traditions. France reduced the Orient to colony, concubine and indolent heathen, betraying the complex attitudes of an entangled imperialist."

The visual language of the French Orientalist painters, she wrote, "enjoyed the cumulative credibility of antiquity and the Christian tradition, both of which often represented truth by means of the heroic and enshrined male body." Thus, she continued, "the Orient became the feminized and exotic vessel for colonial energies." Such an interpretation appears quite convincing when confronted by many famous Orientalist paintings, although one should remember that they were preceded by many decades by the great odalisques of the 1830s by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and some great nudes by Delacroix.

"In the postbellum period and the early decades of the twentieth century," she continued, "Orientalist imagery proliferated [in America] in the form of paintings, prints, decorative arts, advertisements, photographs, films, fashion and a verity of performing arts. In part, this resulted from increased travel opportunities and expanding national horizons, but it was also indicative of the efflorescence of mass media and the development of a department store culture. From this explosion of imagery, people were assembling for themselves representations of the Orient were increasingly vivid and varied. The images changed over time, subject to domestic needs and social pressures. In the decades after the Civil War, the Orient was conceived primarily as a traditional and monolithic culture in an unadulterated natural setting. As such, it was a distant screen upon which the Protestant narrative could be reenacted, American values could be projected, and nostalgia could be expressed. In paintings of the 1870s and 1880s, one is struck not by the exoticism of the imagery so much as its comfortable familiarity for a Victorian audience…..As the century drew to a close, the Orient was remodeled for new consumers. The real thing' was brought home and displayed in the form of live ethnographic exhibits at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Here, the Orient was constructed not as potentially like America, but rather as demonstrably and thankfully different….This Orient was belittled and demeaned by anthropologists, fair organizers, and ultimately, the American public. Thereafter, in the early twentieth century, when women began to enjoy more social latitude and Americans were collectively and individually discovering 'the body,' the Orient was reimagined around sex."

"Fumée d'ambre gris" by John Singer Sargent

"Fumée d’ambre gris (Ambergris Smoke)" by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), oil on canvas, 54 ¾ by 35 11/16 inches, 1880, Sterling and France Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Women feature prominently in Orientalist paintings. One of the most beautiful in the show is "Fumée d’ambre gris (Ambergris Smoke)" by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), oil on canvas, 54 ¾ by 35 11/16 inches, 1990, Sterling and France Clark Art Institute, shown above. The artist once remarked that it was "a little picture I perpetrated in Tangiers," adding that "the only thing of interest was the colour." The catalogue notes that Sargent’s comment was most likely disingenuous and "also reveals Sargent’s relative disinterest in the subject matter and his early commitment to the idea of art for art’s sake" that "distinguished him from contemporaneous Orientalists, who pursed the genre in a traditional, academic mode, assiduously depicting their subjects with ethnographic precision." While many Orientalist pictures of women are "alluring," the catalogue continued, "Sargent offers a woman who neither incites voyeurism nor displays vulnerability," adding that "Powerful in her solitude, she denies entrance to the viewer with the imperious warning of a raised finger."

The catalogue’s cover illustration is "The Siesta," by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928), an oil on canvas, 11 ¼ by 17 inches, 1878, that is in a private collection and is reproduced in the catalogue courtesy of the Spanierman Gallery in New York. The exquisite painting, shown at the top of this article, of a woman reclining in a very lush and colorful interior. The catalogue notes that "her station in life is more open to interpretation" than similar French pictures, but adds that "there are hints of danger…The doorway at the far right, closed enough to suggest privacy but sufficiently open to suggest access or surveillance, adds ambiguity to the scene." "The monkey, too, perched on the back of the divan, has been interpreted as a symbol of licentiousness, but that unsavory feature is external to the women, divorced from her and embodied in bestial form. The pipe in the foreground, the apparent source of her torpor, bars the viewer’s access to the most complex part of the picture, where a table, coffee, pipe, pillows, and the dreamer’s head converge. Ultimately the picture is about dreams and fantasies: those of the girl and those of the viewer," the catalogue entry continued. Bridgman, it noted, "was America’s preeminent Orientalist painter," who studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose painting "The Snake Charmer" in the collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, is one of the exhibition’s highlights.

"Keeoma" by Charles M. Russell

"Keeoma," by Charles M. Russell, 1864-1926, oil on academy board, 18 ½ by 24 ½ inches, 1896, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

"Keeoma," by Charles M. Russell, 1864-1926, oil on academy board, 18 ½ by 24 ½ inches, 1896, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, shown above, is one of the exhibition’s major surprises as Russell is best known as a fine "cowboy" illustrator of the American West.

The catalogue provides the following commentary on the painting:

"The painting is clearly a self-conscious effort to adapt the trope of the odalisque to Native American subject matter. It employs all the stereotypical elements of such imagery, including a languid female with accommodating demeanor, ethnographically pertinent backdrop, and, of course, the ever-ready pipe. The details are simply adjusted to evoke a Native American setting rather than an oriental harem. Such a scene could only be contrived with some effort, and Russell accomplished it by having his wife dress and pose in the appropriate garb. He was clearly engaging art history in this picture, and he was also making a laconic comment about the tastes and values of collectors back East."

"Rose Harvest" by Henry Siddons Mowbray

"Rose Harvest" by Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858-1928), oil on canvas, 14 by 20 inches, 1887, Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina

One of the exhibition's loveliest pictures is "Rose Harvest" by Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858-1928), oil on canvas, 14 by 20 inches, 1887, Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, shown above. Mowbray is a fine and underappreciated artist who is best known for murals from late in his career. According to the catalogue, the artist drew on the popularity of "The Arabian Nights" to "compose evocative and beautiful easel paintings," adding that "His exotic imagery did not always derive from translated literature." "Rose Harvest," it continued, "likely illustrates an episode from Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh, a work that enjoyed considerable popularity in the late nineteenth century."

One of America's greatest Orientalists was Elihu Vedder (), who is represented in the exhibition by two small illustrations and a fine small rather abstract painting of the Nile. Vedder is perhaps best known for his illustrations of "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," which was published in 1884, and his painting "Questioner of the Sphinx," which, unfortunately is not included in the exhibition or the catalogue.

"1002nd Night" dress ensemble by Paul Poiret

"1002nd Night" Dress Ensemble with Turban, by Paul Poiret, circa 1911, silver lamé and green gauze dress with harem pants and wired panniers; trimmed with blue and green foil, gold metal beads, and faceted celluloid beads in shades of blue, green, red and yellow, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Trust Gift, 1983

"1002nd Night" Dress Ensemble with Turban, by Paul Poiret, 1879-1944, circa 1911, silver lamé and green gauze dress with harem pants and wired panniers; trimmed with blue and green foil, gold metal beads, and faceted celluloid beads in shades of blue, green, red and yellow, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Trust Gift, 1983, shown above, epitomizes the Orientalist look in fashion. "The Victorian age had left the sexes cemented in rigid roles that were easily discernible in their dress - men in the drab yet freeing uniform of business, and women in an almost literal gilded cage of whalebone and steel, brocade and lace. For most of the nineteenth century, Orientalism had provided fashion with occasional decorative flourishes and a favorite form of fancy dress. Its most far-reaching influence proved to be an 'anti-fashion' look, based on a Turkish model, that was adopted by women seeking to advance women's rights. Perhaps the earliest example in this country is that of Frances Wright - author, abolitionist, and utopian - who was known as early as the 1830s for wearing Turkish trousers," the catalogue entry noted.

In June, 1910, the Ballets Russes performed Scheherazade at the Paris Opera, with sets and costumes with bold colors by Léon Bakst. "Its effect on the world of design was immediate," the catalogue observed. Among the first couturiers to adopt the new style, which emphasized fluidity and transparency, was Paul Poiret (1879-1944). "The noted art collector Peggy Guggenheim had herself photographed by Man Ray wearing a sinuous Poiret gown with a metallic gold harem hem….Perhaps most devout was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney….In 1913, she commissoned from Nakst an ensemble consisted of a flared tunic with an oversized Persian design and hare trousers," the catalogue noted. One of the more interesting works in the exhibit is a photograph by Baron Adolf de Meyer (1868-1949) of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, wearing the Bakst outfit in a very animated pose. She also commissioned a portrait of herself by Robert Henri in 1916 that is now in the Whitney Museum showing her reclining on a sofa like an odalisque.

"The Roc's Egg" by Robert Swain Gifford

"The Roc’s Egg" by Robert Swain Gifford, watercolor on paper, 14 11/16 by 10 ¾ inches, 1874, Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine, Gift of Mrs. Dorothy Hayes, 1959

"The Roc’s Egg" by Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905), watercolor on paper, 14 11/16 by 10 ¾ inches, 1874 Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine, Gift of Mrs. Dorothy Hayes, 1959, shown above, is an episode from Sinbad the Sailor in "The Arabian Nights" in which Sinbad and some merchants came across the egg of a roc, a legendary bird of prey, that they cooked and ate only to have the parent birds drop stones on their ship, sinking it.

"The Lone Scout" by Albert Pinkham Ryder

"The Lone Scout" by Albert Pinkham Ryder, oil on canvas, 13 by 10 inches, circa 1880, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III.

"The Lone Scout" by Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), oil on canvas, 13 by 10 inches, circa 1880, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, shown above, is a quite luminous work by this great American mystic painter. Ryder traveled to Tangier in 1882 and the catalogue notes that this painting "typifies Ryder's style of visionary distillation" and "details of the man's dress and accoutrements are unusually precise, anchoring the otherwise ephemeral figure in physical substance." "Even so, the figures hangs lightly, mirage-like on the canvas, conjuring up exotic tales like Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh, which Ryder illustrated around the same time," it continued. The image also conjures Omar Sharif's grand entry in the desert in David Lean's movie, "Lawrence of Arabia."

Lowell Thomas poster

Lowell Thomas Travelogues Poster, lithograph, 84 by 42 inches, 1921, Lowell Thomas Archives, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York

The catalogue devotes an entire chapter to Lowell Thomas, "The Modern Master of the Magic Carpet." Thomas, one of whose 1921 posters is shown above, capitalized on his travels in the Near East and especially with Lawrence of Arabia whose story was, according to Thomas, "a tale of wild adventure - colorful as the Arabian Nights, poetic as the Rubaiyat. It is a not a story of war and slaughter but of a human being endowed with God-given powers."

Thomas produced a two-hour concert "travelogue" that included almost 300 slides, hand colored, palm trees, incense and a dance of the seven veils. His concert tour was immensely popular and Thomas would go on to become a world-famous narrator of newsreels and an active force in the Explorers Club in New York for decades. His mellifluous voice and elegant tailoring would be very influential on famous anchorpersons such as Walter Cronkite.

The catalogue notes that "his expertise went largely unquestioned, although at least one member of the audience wrote to protest the show's disgraceful treatment of Islam, and another accused Thomas of being on the payroll of brewers of alcoholic beverages."

While not a huge exhibition, it is very choice and very interesting. Its essays go a long way to explaining the phenomenon of fads and while they declare that the exhibition is not definitive they do offer a great deal of intelligent, incisive and fascinating material. Orientalism had a pretty long run as a fad. Indeed, its run is not really over. While much of the fraternal and advertising examples have a high "kitsch" factor, much of the art and architecture demonstrate that the aesthetic values of Orientalism are quite rich.

Click here to order the catalogue from Amazon.com

 

Home Page of The City Review