Orsay Museum : Orientalism

Visit-conference – 19th of May

What is orientalism?

Orientalism first was a literature and art movement born in western Europe during the 18th century. Along the 19th century, orientalist artists mark their interest and curiosity for countries outside of Europe, notably Maghreb, the Middle East and other countries following European colonialism.

This « exotic » tendency is associated with all artistic movements of the 19th century : architecture, music, painting, literature, and poetry.

The poem « L’invitation au voyage » (« The Invitation to Travel ») by Charles Baudelaire, for example, illustrates this fascination et exoticisation of the « Orient ».

Picturesque aesthetics, blending styles, civilisations and eras, orientalism created a visual universe that subsists in nowadays’ literature and cinema. In paintings, this movement corresponds to the art works of painters generally academic but who differentiate themselves by tackling different themes than Greco-Roman Antiquity.

Why does orientalism’s historical context matter ?

The understanding of the historical and political context is necessary to define this movement : around 1830-1840, European colonialism increases. Orientalist painters travel towards Greece, Turkey, Maghreb, Egypt, and Palestine.

The « Occident » (West) used to be more isolated from certain regions of the « Orient » (East). In the Mediterranean east, the Byzantine empire was located at the crossroads of commercial routes between Asia, Africa and Europe. The “Orient” was thus associated with opulence, wealth and beauty. The orientalist paintings reflect dangerous stereotypes of sensuality but also of cruelty and violence. Orientalism is thus indivisible from its context : expanding colonialism.

Which paintings can examplify orientalism ?

 « Exécution sans jugement sous les rois maures de Grenade » (« Execution without judgement by the Moorish kings of Granada ») (1870) by Henri Regnault is a striking example. The orange and pink are not academic colors, which shows the orientalist influence of the painting.

Furthermore, we can see that the fascination for the “Orient”’s beauty comes with an “Eros and Thanatos” (desire and death) relationship. The character is aesthetically handsome but he is also presented as cruel and violent.

« Le Sahara » (« The Sahara ») (1867) by Gustave Guillaumet and « Le Pays de la Soif » (« The Country of Thirst ») (1869) by Eugène Fromentin also illustrate this fascination mingled with the fear of the « Orient », represented by threatening and deathly landscapes.