Dicksee Leila.jpg

Leila, Frank Dicksee, 1892, Private Collection.

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Odalisque, Frederic Leighton, 1862, Private Collection

The extensive trade and diplomacy between Europe and the Middle East throughout history ensured that an ambiguous concept of the East had captured European imaginations long before the nineteenth century.  The loss of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 ushered in a period of interaction between Europe and the Middle East. Dutch, French, English, and Portuguese merchants had been present in the Islamic world as far back as the fifteenth century, seeking to introduce luxury goods from these regions into European markets. Venice had been the most important trade link with the Middle East since the end of the middle ages, and after the fall of Constantinople it became the only Western port where the Turkish could dock.[1]  The effects of this interaction can be observed in European art. Renaissance and Baroque artists sometimes featured Turks and Moors in opulent costumes, and the third king in nativity scenes was conventionally depicted as dark skinned and wearing Middle Eastern dress.

 Between 1798 and 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte and his army invaded Egypt and Syria and were eventually driven out by British and Ottoman forces. The European presence in the Islamic world saw an increase in European interest in Eastern subjects throughout the nineteenth century. With the arrival of improved transportation, the average European had unprecedented access to the Middle East. People began to go beyond the predetermined Grand Tour to explore foreign lands. Even those who never left Europe were exposed to Eastern culture through travel literature and the many international exhibitions that swept Europe mid-century.[2] Enabled by this limited exposure, an undefined idea of the “Orient” started to form in western culture. This Orient was sensual, mysterious, and decadent. It had no clear geographic or temporal location, but existed only in the minds of the Europeans. The Orient as depicted in European art and literature was constructed as the antithesis of the Western ideal. Many followers of the Romantic movement in France and Britain embraced this fantastical Orient and used it to explore themes that would otherwise be taboo.[3] By turning to exotic subjects, they could explore excesses of emotion, violence, and sexuality in a way that was not permitted with European subjects. British orientalist painting was more conservative than its French counterpart: languid odalisques were an overwhelmingly French phenomenon.[4]

As Romanticism begun to fade in the middle of the nineteenth century, Orientalist imagery remained sensual and luxurious but lost some of the violence that had been present earlier in the century. The most common type of Orientalist image in British painting was the genre painting. Quiet images of daily life in the Middle East were common; harem scenes fall into this category, but the loose-limbed nudes common in French depictions of the harem were mostly absent in British painting. British painters depicted the harem as sensual and feminine, but also refined and dignified. This change in perception was partially because more women began to travel to the Islamic world, and although male tourists could not enter harems, Western women could. Their written accounts describe the harem as a domestic, female-dominated space.[5] 

[1] Gerard-Georges Lemaire, The Orient in Western Art (Cologne: Konemann, 2001), p. 20.

[2] Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, s.v. “Orientalism in Nineteenth-Century Art,” by Jennifer Meagher, October 2004 http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/euor/hd_euor.htm (accessed November 12, 2016).

[3] Nicholas Tromans, ed., The Lure of the East (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 42.

[4] Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, “Orientalism in Nineteenth-Century Art.”

[5] Tromans, Lure of the East, pp. 128-35