History of Modern France

The Third French Republic 1870-1940. Part 2

17 & 18 March  2021

A Thousand and One Fantasies: Orientalism in 19th Century French Art and Literature

J.D. Ingres, The Turkish Bath, 1852-1859, modified in 1862, Paris, musée du Louvre

The Orient had fascinated the Western artist’s imagination centuries prior to the turn of the nineteenth century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Westerners felt as much fascination as fear for the great Ottoman empire and many examples of “Turqueries” can be found in painting and literature. In 1798, Napoléon I launched his Egyptian Campaign and opened the canonic period of French Orientalism, which extends from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth century.

 

European presence in Egypt and the beginning of the French colonial Empire in Algeria in 1830 attracted Western travelers to the Near and Middle East, many of whom captured their impressions in paint or print.

 

In art history, the term Orientalism refers to the works of the artists who specialized in Oriental subjects. As an art movement, Orientalist painting is generally treated as one of the many branches of 19th century academic art; however, many different styles of Orientalist art were in evidence. French painters such as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme are widely regarded as the leaders of the Orientalist movement.

 

In many of their works, French artists portrayed the Orient as the ultimate Other: exotic, barbaric, colorful or sensual. The Orient was often feminized, as it was colonized, which appears in the great number of harem scenes and portraits of lascivious odalisques.

 

Extensive traveling by writers from the Romantic movement (Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier) or fin-de-siècle novelists like Gustave Flaubert, Isabelle Eberhardt and Pierre Loti brought travelogues or sensational tales back to the West creating a great interest in all things "foreign".

 

Throughout the 19th Century, the Orient was an infinite source of inspiration and the Oriental imagination shaped France’s literature and art.

J.L. Gérôme, Napoleon and His General Staff in Egypt

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Arnaute Smoking, 1865, private collection