PRINT July/August 2020



Charles Théodore Frère, Grand Pyramid de Gyzeh, n.d., oil on panel, 8 1⁄2 × 15 1⁄8".

ORIENTALIST PAINTING dates back at least to the Renaissance but was especially popular from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth, a period that tellingly coincided with the heyday of colonialism. Intent on displaying “Oriental” (read: Ottoman and Arab, mostly) life in all its strangeness and colorfulness, artists working in this subgenre of academic painting espoused a number of thematic categories that accounted for most of their output. These included portraits of Oriental stereotypes (tribal chieftains, guards, or mystics), street views or interiors, sun-drenched picturesque landscapes, and biblical scenes. But the most popular subject was the harem, which allowed artists to parade female nudity in safely distant foreign settings, thus projecting Western lasciviousness onto the exoticized East.

Dismissed from the annals of modern art and ignored for most of the twentieth century, Orientalist painting lay dormant in provincial museums or neglected private collections. Then, in the 1980s, it suddenly burst onto the art market. Paintings that had hovered around a $5,000 valuation for decades shot up into the millions. (In 1990, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Bathsheba, 1889, sold for $2.2 million at Sotheby’s.) The trend slowed after the 2008 financial crisis, since, after all, there can only be so many good specimens of a genre that ceased production around a hundred years ago. But the October 2019 sale of thirty-six of the 155 choice Orientalist paintings belonging to the deliberately mysterious Najd Collection (whose owner, Saudi billionaire Nasser al-Rashid, had previously been anonymous) invigorated the market anew.

Cesare Dell’Acqua, Orientale brulant des parfums (Oriental Woman Burning Incense), ca. 1869, oil on panel, 36 3⁄8 × 27 7⁄8".

Exhibitions in major Western museums and, later, in Islamic institutions had accompanied the initial market explosion. The first wide-ranging survey of the genre, “The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse,” went on view at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1984 and traveled to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The most recent, grandiloquently titled “Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art,” ran at the British Museum, London, from October 2019 to January 2020 and, before the coronavirus crisis, had been scheduled to open at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) in Kuala Lumpur in June. The paintings in the show came primarily from the rapidly growing collection of the latter institution, which is headed by Syed Mohamad Albukhary. (His brother is the chairman of the Albukhary Foundation, which in 2015 funded the spectacular remodeling of the Islamic Art Gallery at the British Museum, henceforth renamed the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World.)

Like Albukhary, most major contemporary collectors of Orientalist painting are wealthy Muslims, mainly but not exclusively Gulf Arabs whose net worth rose dramatically after the oil boom of the mid-’70s. To them, these paintings have a nostalgic appeal, representing a window into an imaginary world of beauty, simplicity, and dignity authenticated by art consultants. In its realistic techniques, its obsessive attention to detail, and the correspondence between travel literature and its painted scenes, these experts have identified proofs of the verisimilitude, and even the sympathetic intentions, of Orientalist painting.1 More than any other factor, this narrative provided the basis for the resurgence of the genre in the art market and its reintroduction into world museums. There are even plans for an Orientalist museum in Doha, Qatar, which will, if constructed, display more than a thousand paintings amassed by Sheikh Hassan al-Thani, a member of Qatar’s ruling family who has donated the artworks to the state.

“Alhambra” vase, Spain, ca. 1800s, lusterware, 53 1⁄2 × 25 5⁄8 × 25 5⁄8".

Yet even if we take into account the market hype, the allure of Orientalist painting in the Islamic world is still perplexing. Underneath the sheen of rehabilitation, Orientalist paintings remain replete with distortions and negative stereotypes. It is difficult to understand how, more than forty years after the critical revolution initiated by Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), this artistic tradition can be regarded with such a striking lack of critical skepticism. Said showed how colonialism, the most momentous Western project of domination, used Orientalism to study, codify, and represent the cultures of the Islamic world. Many Orientalist artists were, in fact, embedded in the colonial enterprise, sometimes even working for colonial authorities. Under the weight of their images, the Orient was subjected to a visual process of othering that depicted its cultures as quaint, outdated, and incompatible with Europe’s modern values.

The curators of “Inspired by the East” were well aware of Said’s critique. In a wall text, they even quoted his definition of the Orient as “the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.” They then tried to evade and deflect the implications of his ideas. The accompanying catalogue rehashes some of the most tired criticisms of his book: Said ignored images; concentrated too narrowly on the Arab world; did not account for relatively benign factors supposedly animating Orientalism such as curiosity, fascination, and appreciation of craft traditions. This last point was a touchstone for “Inspired by the East.” With a display of objects including metal bowls imitating Mamluk and Ilkhanid models, tiles with Ottoman- and Persian-inspired motifs, and a specimen of the so-called Alhambra vase (a popular vessel in the mid-nineteenth century), the show underscored the influence of Islamic art on Western decorative traditions during a period (roughly the mid-to-late nineteenth century) when artists and designers were searching for ways to adapt traditional crafts from all over the world for the industrial age’s means and tastes—an enterprise known as the Arts and Crafts movement. This “influence,” however, was more like appropriation—agency lay with those doing the adapting. The cultures of the colonized were made to unveil their artistry to the probing gaze of Western architects and designers (e.g., Hans Karl von Diebitsch, Owen Jones, William Morris) who dissected and reproduced it in streamlined form for the burgeoning bourgeois markets of Europe and North America. This is what Arindam Dutta demonstrated in his 2007 study The Bureaucracy of Beauty by analyzing the work of the department of science and arts in the British Empire, whose crown jewels were London’s South Kensington Museum and Royal College of Art (later the Victoria and Albert Museum), perhaps the most taxonomically exhaustive museum of arts and crafts anywhere.2

Maw & Co., tile, ca. 1890, glazed earthenware, 7 7⁄8 × 7 7⁄8".

But it is the Orientalist paintings that constitute the backbone of “Inspired by the East” and its raison d’être as a collaborative effort between the British Museum and IAMM. While, as mentioned, almost all of the paintings come from IAMM’s collection, most of the historical objects and sketches are drawn from the collections of the British Museum and other British institutions (which collectively possess some of the most comprehensive repositories of museum-quality Islamic objects in the world). There is a certain mutually substantiating reciprocity in this division. The Malaysian museum furnishes the fantasy represented in the paintings; the British side offers the objects that authenticate the pictures, creating what Roland Barthes called the “reality effect” and rendering the invented scenes plausible. The potential of the reality effect was not lost on Orientalist painters, many of whom, like Gérôme and Ludwig Deutsch (both represented in “Inspired by the East”), returned from their Oriental voyages with props—carpets, trinkets, and weapons—they deployed as validating elements in their work. At the exhibition, the reality effect reverberated between the objects depicted in the paintings and the corresponding artifacts displayed around them, perpetuating the illusion of authenticity. Additionally, photographs, whose widespread use as aide-mémoire was almost never acknowledged by Orientalist painters, provided a “real” background to the action choreographed in the studio with hired models dressed up, or not dressed at all, to fit the theme.

The main problem with Orientalist paintings, however, is not their failure to accurately portray reality (nor even that collectors seem to prize them precisely for a realism they don’t possess). It is their smug assumption that they command the authority to represent reality. This is precisely where Said’s insistence on the interdependence of colonialism and Orientalism comes into sharp focus. Like all Orientalists, the painters relied on an unbalanced relationship of power with their subject, the Orient, and forced it to yield its ostensible true meaning to their trained eyes. The mastery was obviously bolstered by colonial conquest, which permitted Orientalists to freely travel, observe in situ, and collect (and at times loot) artifacts from places that had been hitherto hard to access, if not outright forbidden. But the real source of the Orientalists’ overconfidence was their belief in their epistemological superiority, a belief that fueled the West’s self-image before, during, and after colonialism. This conviction allowed colonialism to masquerade as a mission civilisatrice to societies that were allegedly backward, cruel, ignorant, licentious, and superstitious—characteristics melodramatically amplified in Orientalist painting.

One of the most potent expressions of this epistemological superiority is the power to represent non-Western history, culture, and art as if they had lain unknown until Western experts found them and brought them to the attention of the learned world. According to this schema, colonized people may be local informants, but they cannot analyze, interpret, or, most importantly, represent independently. For that, they need the skills of the professional Orientalists, who alone can apply the proper modes of seeing, recording, and analyzing culture in all its manifestations. Only those Orientals trained in Western methods can venture into the realm of representation. One such figure was Ottoman painter Osman Hamdi Bey, who studied in Paris and whose Young Woman Reading, 1880, had pride of place in the show after it was acquired for the whopping price of $8.4 million shortly before the opening.

Could the rekindled interest in Orientalist painting today among Muslim collectors have been triggered by an acculturation process similar to the one their “Westernized” forebears underwent? The circumstances have changed too drastically to allow for a definitive answer. Direct colonialism has disappeared. The Orient has metamorphosed into nation-states. The West has lost its prestige as the paramount civilizational model. Yet the apparatus that controls the art world has remained essentially Western. Indeed, most art museums that have achieved global-brand status, art publications, festivals, and academic programs are Western. Western auction houses dominate the world art market and set not only the prices but also the trends in art acquisition. Hegemony works in insidious ways—and perhaps never more so than when it comes in the form of objective expertise. Therein may lie the solution to the riddle of Orientalist painting’s contemporary appeal. 

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


1. See the discussion in John M. MacKenzie, “Orientalism in Art,” in his Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 43–70; Zeynep Çelik, “Colonialism, Orientalism, and the Canon,” Art Bulletin 78, no. 2 (June 1996): 20–25; Mercedes Volait, “Middle Eastern Collections of Orientalist Painting at the Turn of the 21st Century: Paradoxical Reversal or Persistent Misunderstanding? ” in Leiden Studies in Islam and Society, ed. François Pouillon and Jean-Claude Vatin (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014), 251–71.

2. Arindam Dutta, The Bureaucracy of Beauty: Design in the Age of Its Global Reproducibility (London: Routledge, 2007).