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
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
"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
"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
"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
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."
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
"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
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
"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 (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 (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."
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
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.