Orientalism is an artistic style popular in the nineteenth century. Several Western artists, especially French artists like Delacroix, painted scenes of Eastern culture that often depicted harem women and sheiks alongside the scenery of Northern African and Middle Eastern lands. Paintings of the Orientalism movement showcased Oriental motifs, designs, and even styles. Exotic scenes set within an Oriental backdrop were highly regarded in Western Europe during the nineteenth century.
Orientalism is often considered by art historians to be an artistic culmination of imperialism. The Asian influence was already well established in Europe due to decades of colonization. Companies like the East India Company opened up vast doorways for trade with the East. Both Chinoiserie and Japonisme were similarly influential waves of Oriental styles. While paintings that were Oriental in subject matter were seen in Europe centuries before, they were far more numerous during the 1800s when more Western artists began to travel to the Middle East and North African destinations.
Typically Islamic in nature, these paintings of the Near East were usually sensual in color and, indeed, subject matter. Harem scenes often showcased exotically garbed women posed sensually atop low couches. Turkish bath scenes as in Le Bain Turc (1862) were depicted with blatant sexuality provoking the idea of an orgy, certainly provoking the idea of unrepressed and unfeigned sexuality running rampantly through such places—a marked contrast with life in the West. Slave markets, hookah smoking, and provocative women were the hallmarks of these artistic works. While not all paintings reflect eroticism or vice, such as the View of the Leander Tower in Constantinople by Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky, they essentially convey the exotic nature of Eastern locations.
Some of the movement’s most famous artists include Eugene Delacroix, Jean Ingres, and Jean-Leon Gerome. The erotically charged paintings of Orientalism were widely accepted in Europe and were seen, perhaps with prejudice, as in keeping with the exotic cultures of such locations. Other artists that participated in the Orientalism movement include Edmund Dulac, Theodore Ralli, Horace Vernet, James Tissot, Alberto Passini, Alphonse Dinet, and Jean Baptiste Vanmour. However, many more artists contributed to this movement and the Orientalism catalog of works is quite extensive.
Orientalism grew in controversy, despite initial popularity, for its stereotypical depictions of Arab peoples. Because subjects were often depicted in scenes of amorality, the paintings are often viewed today as objects of propaganda against the people of Arab countries. In any case, during its heyday in the nineteenth century, Orientalism and its paintings of odalisques, merchants, and slaves were popular and are still popularly collected today. Among the most famed paintings are: Algerian Women in Their Chamber by Eugene Delacroix, La Reine de Saba by Edmund Dulac, Odalisque with a Slave by Jean Ingres, and The Hookah Lighter by Jean-Leon Gerome.