In art history, Orientalism is a term used by art historians to describe a style of art that depicted scenes and designs from the East. This style was used by Western artists who had a strong interest in Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian, and North African cultures.
Due to its popularity among Western artists, the Orientalist style is often divided into two categories: the realists artists who traveled to the East and painted what they saw and the fantasy artists who never traveled to the East but instead painted what they imagined the East to be.
In some countries, Orientalism is considered an art movement taking place in the 19th-century. However, if you were to expand your study, you would find that Orientalism goes back much further and still exists today. For example, in the 1700s, Jean-Étienne Liotard traveled to Turkey and painted numerous pastels of Turkish domestic scenes. When he returned to Europe, he continued to wear Turkish dress, thus gaining the name “the Turkish painter”.
Even before the 1700s, you can see Orientalist influences in the religious artifacts and art of Western Europe. One example is Gentile Bellini’s painting of the Ottoman leader, Sultan Mehmed II in 1480. An Orientalist influence can be seen in several other paintings by Bellini, including the portrait of a Turkish artist and the painting called St. Mark Preaching at Alexandria.
Another example of early Orientalist influence on Western European art can be seen in the works of Bonaventura Peeters in the mid-1600s. A great example is A Port in the Orient, painted between 1650 and 1652.
In modern times, many artists continue to explore the Orientalist themes. One such artist is Pedro Bonatto. Bonatto created a fine-art photography series called The Orientalist which “explores the presence of Middle Eastern dance, music and art in the West through creative portraiture.” The series is filled with dramatic images, transporting the viewer to the East… the 18th and 19th century East to be specific.
Earlier we wrote, this style is often divided into two categories: the realists artists who traveled to the East and painted what they saw and the fantasy artists who never traveled to the East but instead painted what they imagined the East to be. Well, at this point, we would like to further divide the Orientalist style into two more categories: paintings depicting an exotically sexual scene and paintings giving an authentic glimpse of an event or a location.
This new division is important in understanding the current critiquing of the Orientalist movement. Today, the Orientalist movement is under fire for culture appropriation, racist depictions, false stereotypes construction, and cultural inaccuracies. In the book Orientalism (1978), the cultural critic Edward Said redefined the term Orientalism to describe a pervasive Western tradition — academic and artistic — of prejudiced outsider-interpretations of the Eastern world, which was shaped by the cultural attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As for who is right or wrong, we will leave it for you to form your own opinion. Below we have added more Orientalist paintings to help you do this. These paintings depict various scenes – from the hyper sexual to the conservative professional.
If you are interested in learning more about Orientalist art, please watch this short video below. Claude Piening, Head of Orientalist Paintings, talks about art featured in a Orientalist sale at Sotheby.