Throughout the 19th century, one of the most popular and widely exhibited genres of painting was Orientalism within Academism. Eastern cultures became a fascination for Europeans as a result of colonialism and increased trade and travel between continents. Many Academic artists shared that fascination and capitalized on the allure of the Near East, and Orientalism emerged. The movement was marked by images of marketplaces bustling with people in exotic dress and voyeuristic scenes of harems and bathing women. These scenes were largely created for Western audiences; rather than a true or accurate reflection of Eastern landscapes and culture, these works were formed from the collective consciousness of Europeans who viewed the Orient as exotic, alluring and “other.”
Orientalism Art History
Interest in the Near East has existed for centuries, but it was not until the early 18th century and the Enlightenment that the fervor for all things eastern really began to take off. The great neoclassical theorist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was one Enlightenment-era philosopher responsible for the fervor. Winckelmann is largely considered the father of modern archeology, and he was the first to produce scholarship on all ancient art — including the Etruscans and Egyptians. Thanks to the influence of his work, decorative motifs of Egyptian origin became more and more popular in both furniture and the fine and decorative arts.
Another large factor in the emerging popularity of Near Eastern images was Napoléon Bonaparte’s ultimately unsuccessful campaigns in Egypt and Syria from 1798 to 1801. The European occupation of these lands generated huge public interest in Egyptology, attracting Western visitors and sparking artists to paint romanticized scenes from the country’s history. Jean-Léon Gérôme was one of the leading practitioners of Orientalism, and here, he presents a dramatic composition of an ancient ritualistic war dance called the Pyrrhic dance. Greek in origin, it was performed by costumed dancers armed with swords who completed a series of movements set to music pantomiming combat. Homer wrote that Achilles performed this dance in a show of respect and grief at the funeral of his friend, Patroclus. When Julius Caesar introduced it to the Roman Games, its popularity spread across the Roman Empire to include Egypt, where Gérôme’s composition is set. Audiences of the day would have been fascinated both by the work’s show of artistic skill and its anthropological perspective.
The Nude in Orientalism
Images of these cultures piqued the curiosity of Western audiences, and the presence of the nude figure only heightened that curiosity. Thus, the nude, especially the female nude, became an essential sub-genre within Orientalism. Compositions and techniques remained classically inspired, and the nude was always highly idealized, though with a more sensual quality. These paintings invoked the senses in a way other Academic paintings did not, even those that also depicted the nude form. Their women lie on lush, exotically patterned textiles, are perfumed with incense and exude an unfamiliar yet enticing quality. Orientalist nudes possess an implicit eroticism unusual for the time period, which provided Westerners a way to indulge in their fantasies of a far-off land.
One argument for including a nude in an Orientalist painting was the exotic, otherly nature of peoples depicted. During this period, Europeans viewed Eastern cultures as less civilized, and in their eyes, a nude’s presence was simply a reflection of that lack of refinement. Naked figures in art reinforced Western stereotypes that Eastern peoples were backward, morally inferior and lacking in character, giving Europeans an even greater sense of superiority over other cultures and helping justify colonialism.
Near Eastern settings also gave artists an opportunity to paint scenes with Christian themes, conveniently providing them with another “alibi” when including nude figures. These nudes could represent virtue or vice, but either way, they were useful tools for presenting tales of morality. Along with Eve, the bibical figures Bathsheba, Judith and Salome were some of the only females whose nudity could be excused by Christian audiences. Salome notoriously seduced Herod with her captivating dance and demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter in return, and she was considered a temptress who lured men away from the righteous path. In contrast, the heroine Judith charmed the conquering general Holofernes in his private chambers before beheading him. Yet, each of their stories could provide a valuable moral lesson, and thus it became acceptable for them to be presented as nude.
In these two paintings by Academic painters Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and Marie Felix Hippolyte-Lucas, respectively, we can observe different approaches artists took to depict these two biblical women in the nude. Constant’s Judith is a highly classical rendering. She turns away from the viewer, holding a sword, a symbol of her triumph over Holofernes. These details make her nude form more palatable and less confrontational for the viewer. In contrast, Hippolyte-Lucas takes a far more modern approach. The half-nude Salome fills the frame and stands proudly and unapologetically next to the severed head of John the Baptist. Surrounding details are more stylized, highlighting the way she confronts the viewer’s stare head-on, smiling widely.
Another popular subject, in part due to its long tradition in art (think the Renaissance works by Verrocchio, Donatello and Michelangelo), was David and Goliath. This bronze rendition by French artist Marius Jean Antonin Mercié modernizes the youthful hero with overtones of Orientalism. This is evidenced by the boy’s headwrap and the decorative elements adorning the base, and the artist even includes the name David in Hebrew letters within this ornamentation.
Modern Orientalist Art
The Orientalist tradition survived beyond the reign of Academic art. More modern depictions of these exotic peoples and locales continued into the 20th century, most notably with Post-Impressionist artists Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. They and other modern Orientalist and Primitivist artists sought out places that they considered unspoiled by Western influence and the ever-changing nature of Europe. They were growing uneasy with the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution and began to romanticize the people and artwork of places like Africa, Japan, China and Polynesia.
Matisse used unexpected, pure colors rather than shading and a strong sense of line to lend his subjects a sense of volume and structure. The human form was central to Matisse’s artistic oeuvre, and he was influenced by both 19th-century Orientalist images of harems and primitive art. Animated and rendered with fluid lines, his nudes conveyed a sense of emotional liberation and hedonism.