The Orientalist School of Art

Here is an article I wrote for Best of Artists and Artisans:

The Orientalist School refers to images painted by European and American artists who traveled in North Africa, the Middle East and India in the 19th century. The movement gradually started when Napoleon set out on his Egyptian Expedition (1798-1801) and took along scholars and artist to categorize and record all portable antiquities. Although a military failure, Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition and the subsequent publication, Description de l’Égypte, resulted in widespread European interest in the long ignored ancient pharaonic monuments and artifacts, which soon began to grace European galleries and museums. The intrigue about the East was born and this renewed interest in foreign cultures was soon followed by artist who wanted to explore these unknown regions for themselves and who flocked to the Middle East, North Africa, and Egypt, in order to paint from direct observation. Jean Léone Gérôme, Rudolf Ernst, Fabbio Fabbi, Ludwig Deutsch are all artists that were leaders in their time, but there are many others whose work are worth exploring in detail.

Market in Jaffa

Capturing landscapes, architectural highlights or people in market settings proved easier than gaining access to the veiled beauties they encountered. The ‘exoticism’, imitation of elements in alien cultures that differ from native tradition, forced them to take many liberties in how they depicted subjects that were off limits to them. Eastern women in their quarters were the most popular of themes in Orientalist paintings since they represented an area off-limit to males which fueled exotic fantasies. The idea of an all female harem, representing beauties in lavishly appointed settings fed the imagination of Nineteenth Century artists to such an extent that there are numerous depictions of reclining odalisques, bathing beauties and exotic dancers.


Some Orientalist artists set up studios in the East and sold portraits, street scenes and topographical studies as souvenirs to travelers. Others painted local royalty and high ranking officials and sold the paintings to the sitters. Those who wanted to capitalize on exoticism returned to their homes, hired models and painted imaginary harem or palace scenes.

Rustem Pasha Mosque Istanbul

The success of a number of the artists was dependent upon French dealers Goupil and Gambart, who made their images household names through engravings and the use of photographs. Eastern themes appeared not only in Europe but also in the United States during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. Eastern influences made their way to popular magazines, advertising, architectural designs and even the performing arts.

Many modern scholars have begun to recognize a renewed interest in the East supported by the reappearance of a wide range of literary, religious and philosophical text and the coverage of topographical, historical and anthropological subjects in the media. Most importantly to the art world is the popularity of Orientalist paintings, commanding auction prices at of $26,377,050 as recently as May 2008 during Sotheby’s sale of 19th Century European Art including The Orientalist Sale. For the first time in almost a decade Sotheby’s held a dedicated offering of Orientalist Art, highlighted by exceptional masterpieces representing the entire region including North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey. This Orientalist Sale, fetched $9,025,750, the highest total ever for a dedicated offering of Orientalist Art in New York, and set auction records for several artists including Arthur von Ferraris, Walter Gould, Rudolf Ernst, Clemente Pujol de Gustavino and Federico Bartolini.

Eastern Spices by Plutenko

This renewed interest in Orientalism themes, fueled by daily media coverage of the East has brought Orientalist art to the forefront again. Painters are finding that the political climates are creating a new East that is worth an equal exploration and are starting to capture images in a new contemporary style, which will be featured in upcoming issues.

First: Gustav Bauernfeind, (German) Market in Jaffa.
Second: Frederick Arthur Bridgman, (American) The Siesta.
Third: Jean Léone Gérôme, (French) Rustam Pasha Mosque, Istanbul.
Fourth: Stanislav Plutenko, (Russian) Eastern Spices.
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