In his magnum opus titled Orientalism, Edward Said laid forth the concept of the Orient being ‘almost a European invention’ and a ‘place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences’ (E. W. Said, Orientalism). Orientalism, in simpler words, is looked upon as a patronizing attitude the West adopts towards the Orient and based on a characterizing distinction between the Orient and Occident. Beginning early 19th century, the Western Civilization’s increased contact with the Oriental led to conquests of these lands; not just politically but culturally as well. European art during this period adopted and reinterpreted the Orient in its work, propagating the mysticism associated with it. Two themes which emerge steadily are those of the Orient as being immoral and barbaric. The immorality was highlighted with the use of erotic motifs which portrayed the Oriental women as exotic sexual beings. The theme of barbarism also visible through the scenes of battle within Oriental communities suggests conflict and spread the perception that the Orientals aren’t fit to rule themselves. This leads us to question the agenda behind the art that emerged during the period of 19th and 20th century. Was the art work produced used as propaganda for the civilizing mission of the west or was it an outlet for the imagined, eroticized ‘other’ created solely as an escape from the then Christian, European world? Through a study of the select works of two 19th century French painters, Delacroix and Ingres and two iconic painters of the 20th century; Matisse and Renoir, I seek to examine this.
Said defines Orientalism as a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the ‘Orient’ and ‘the Occident’. It is this distinction on which this entire discipline revolves; the distinction based on ‘the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures’. This ‘cultural hegemony at work gives Orientalism its durability and the strength’ (E. W. Said, Orientalism).
Cite this article:
Onaiza Drabu . Marvels of the East: Orientalism in 19th and 20th Century Art. Research J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 5(3): July-September, 2014, 290-294.