In short, visions of the East by artists of the West. European painters of the 19th century — from England, France and Germany especially — visited the areas we now know as the Near East, Middle East and North Africa, and depicted what they saw in wide-eyed admiration. Their paintings and works on paper tapped into a growing fascination with travel and far-off, exotic lands, which had previously been beyond the comprehension of the average Londoner or Parisian.
The start of Orientalism coincided with the Romantic age, and its biggest star was Eugène Delacroix. In works such as Massacre at Chios (1824), The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) and The Fanatics of Tangier (1838), he depicted the East as a place of unbridled sensuality, wilful violence and extreme emotions.
Over time, however, visions became much less tumultuous and much more beguiling. Genre scenes became the norm, reflecting everyday life in these faraway lands. Subjects — usually looking relaxed and content — included rug merchants, men at prayer, hookah smokers, chess players and traders in a bustling market.
Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme, John Fredrick Lewis, Gustav Bauernfeind and Ludwig Deutsch are the names that appear at the top of any serious collector's wish list.
According to Arne Everwijn, Director of 19th Century European Art at Christie’s, Franco-Austrian painter Rudolf Ernst, is ‘certainly right up there’. Ernst, he says, ‘was the master of verisimilitude. His paintings are so lifelike that patrons felt they could step right into them and be in the Middle East.
‘His concern was never ethnographic accuracy — this was a man who freely juxtaposed objects from different cultures [such as the Syrian lamp, Ottoman sash and Hispano-Moresque architecture in Tending the Lamp, above]. His aim, instead, was to dazzle viewers with pictures that had an almost tactile quality, so polished were his painted surfaces.
‘Then there is also Ludwig Deutsch [below], a quite supreme colourist,’ continues Everwijn. ‘His colours are so bold — they jump out at you and give a real sense of the richness of Eastern lands.’
Very broadly speaking, British artists tended to stick to the reality of what they saw before them. David Roberts (whose Jerusalem, from the South, below, as sold at Christie’s in June 2016) is a good example: his paintings of people at historical sites are characterised by their topographical precision.
French painters, by contrast, tended to indulge their exotic fantasies more. The harem was common subject matter, even though males weren’t allowed to enter one, and so the artists could never have witnessed such scenes at first hand.
Orientalists tended to paint their canvases in their studios at home, working from photographs and/or sketches that they had made while on their travels.
‘The likes of Ernst and Gérôme also returned to Europe with a host of exotic objects,’ says Everwijn. ‘These ranged from costumes and rifles to carpets, pipes and tiles. Their studios were piled high with these objects, which served as useful props which they deployed in their paintings.’
The alluring exoticism of the East certainly became fashionable among Europe’s elite in the late 19th century, feeding into furniture, textiles, the decorative arts and even architecture. In Britain this taste was perhaps best exemplified in the Arab Hall in the London home of artist Frederic Leighton (now Leighton House Museum).
‘For much of the 20th century, there wasn’t huge demand, but now it’s strong,’ says Everwijn. ‘Christie’s became the first auction house to establish an Orientalist sale in 1998. In recent times, it has been collectors from the Middle East who have been buying these paintings — as quasi-historical documents. They are interested in acquiring a piece of their homeland’s past.’ The Islamic edict against figurative imagery meant that local artists didn’t produce equivalent scenes.