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Everything You Should Know About Orientalism

Art History 101

Everything You Should Know About Orientalism

Nineteenth-century Europeans were fascinated by Near East and North Africa. Everything began roughly around the time of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt when fantasies about the ‘other’ served to justify the colonial expansions. As Napoleonic troops brought foreign objects as spoils, Europeans wanted to see more…

Antoine-Jean Gros, General Bonaparte Visiting the Pesthouse at Jaffa, 1804, The Louvre, What Is Orientalism

Antoine-Jean Gros, General Bonaparte Visiting the Pesthouse at Jaffa, 1804, The Louvre

What Is Orientalism?

Eugene Delacroix, Reclining Odalisque or, Woman with a Parakeet, 1827, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, Lyon, France, What Is Orientalism

Eugene Delacroix, Reclining Odalisque or, Woman with a Parakeet, 1827, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, Lyon, France

The scholar Edward Said defined Orientalism in his famous book from 1978 called Orientalism as a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. Orient, that this the area of North Africa and Near East, served as a counter-place for the European collective self:“European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self”.

The Vices

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake Charmer, 1880, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute What Is Orientalism

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake Charmer, 1880, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute


To justify their imperialistic conquests, Europeans presented the Eastern people as idle, dissolute, chaotic and savage. The East was the home of all Western vices and suppressed needs, and painting helped to express it. This is why we have so many Orientalist scenes at the baths or harems where the Western viewer could peep at what was behind the walls of the imagined Orient.

The Reality Effect

Anne-Louis Girodet, Revolt of Cairo, 1810, The Art Institute of Chicago, What Is Orientalism

Anne-Louis Girodet, Revolt of Cairo, 1810, The Art Institute of Chicago

Most of the scenes presented by the artists were imagined as many of the artists did not even leave Europe! (But they still felt entitled to paint Orientalist works.) Others, like Gerome, went abroad but depicted places they did not see with their own eyes, such as baths, slave markets, or harems. To create an illusion of reality, the painters used insignificant details and highly realistic drawing which would make an impression of places that really existed.


You can read more about this subject in the article “Orientalism of Eugène Delacroix – Beware The Colours!“.

Find out more:

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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