Orientalists and the Middle East

Arabian Nights

During the 18th century, it became fashionable for painters to depict Middle Eastern customs, lifestyle, architecture and landscape. At first, the pictures tended to be fairly conventional topographical studies and portraits. However, by the middle of the 19th century, the Orientalist painters were producing more novel and exciting works. These became more and more popular, as the accessibility of the Middle East grew (Thomas Cook started Egyptian tours in 1868), and colonial expansionism by France and Britain advanced in Egypt and the surrounding areas. There was a passion in Europe for all things Egyptian, and this came out most strongly in the architecture and art of France. In London, pictures by the French Orientalists - Vernet, Gerome, Decamps, Landelle - may be found in the Wallace Collection.

In Britain, there was not the same level of enthusiasm for the Middle East as in France, but nevertheless a fairly strong contingent of Orientalist painters exists. David Roberts produced popular collections of prints from his travels in the 1830s. Frank (Frederick) Goodall painted desert scenes rather later. Alma Tadema painted lavish Egyptian scenes before turning almost exclusively to Greece and Rome for his subjects. Holman Hunt went to Israel and Egypt to paint customs of the Holy Land, and J. F. Lewis painted harem scenes while living the life of a Turkish nobleman. E. J. Poynter caused a sensation with his large picture Israel in Egypt in 1867. William Logsdail, Edwin Long and Thomas Seddon were other important artists who visited the Middle East. J. E. Hodgson produced Orientalist paintings of a similar nature following an extended trip to North Africa. Arthur Melville was a Scottish orientalist.

The attraction of the Orientalist paintings was their novelty, presenting new themes in exotic settings with good light. As well, old themes could be dressed up in new guises - the undraped female form in harem pictures (Ernest Normand and his wife Henrietta Rae were very keen on this genre), hunting scenes and battles with tigers and camels instead of horses, domestic interiors with highly decorated Moorish tiles and screens, and so on. Towards the end of the century, new fashions from Japan, adopted by artists such as Beardsley and Whistler, and a move away from the narrative and illustrative towards the purely aesthetic concerns of colour and composition, meant that Orientalism began to fade out. As well, greatly increased tourism to Egypt meant that the area began to seem less exotic and exciting than before.

In architecture, there was also an Orientalist fashion, and an excellent example is the Arab Hall in Leighton House. We might also mention John Nash's Indian-style Royal Pavilion and the nearby piers in Brighton.

As well as at the Wallace Collection, the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth has a collection of Orientalist works of art, and in Birmingham there are representative pictures by artists such as Goodall and Lewis.

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