19th Century Orientalist School Portrait of an African Guard
Orientalist School, 19th century
Oil on canvas
Unsigned, Dated 1891
25-1/2 x 13-1/2 inches (31 x 19 w/frame)
The Orient-including present day Turkey, Greece, the Middle East and North Africa-exerted its allure on the Western artist’s imagination centuries prior to the turn of the 19th century. Figures in Middle Eastern Dress appear in Renaissance and Baroque works by such artists as Bellini, Veronese and Rembrandt though most Europeans had minimal contact, usually through trade and military campaigns.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt and occupied the country until 1801. The European presence attracted Western travelers to the Near and Middle East and in 1809, the French government published the first installment of the twenty-four volume Description de l’Égypte. This was the most influential of many works that aimed to document the culture of this region and it had a profound effect on French architecture and decorative arts.
Some of the first 19th century Orientalist paintings 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.
Over time, however, visions became much less tumultuous and much more beguiling. Genre scenes became the norm, reflecting everyday life in these faraway lands. Subjects — usually looking relaxed and content — included rug merchants, men at prayer, hookah smokers, chess players and traders in a bustling market.
The most enduring imagery, and the most influential in shipping Western aesthetics, depict harems. Since the artists were most likely denied entrance to the authentic seraglios by African guards, the male painters relied largely on hearsay and imagination, populating opulently decorated interiors with luxuriant odalisques, female slaves or concubines (many with Western features), reclining in the nude or in Oriental dress. One of the masters of the genre, Jean Dominque Ingres (1780-1867) never traveled to the East but used the harem to conjure the female ideal in his voluptuous odalisques. Beyond the implicit eroticism, harem scenes, and Orientalism in particular, evoked a sense of cultivated beauty, exoticism and pampered isolation to which many Westerners aspired.