Published: August 29, 2000
Orientalism in America 1870-1930
WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. – The pervasive influence of the “Orient” – the Nineteenth Century term for the Middle and Near East, North Africa and Turkey – on American culture over a pivotal six-decade period is the subject of this fascinating exhibition. “: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930,” documents how our artists and purveyors of popular culture, working in an increasingly industrialized, modernized and urbanized America, used Orientalist themes to define this country against the alleged decay, sensuality and luxury of an imagined Orient.
Comprising some 100 paintings, drawings, prints, illustrations, advertisements, photographs, decorative art objects, sheet music, high fashion, film clips and Shriner memorabilia, this sprawling display traces the changing features of American Orientalism. Ranging freely through high art and popular culture, the exhibition explores how our brand of Orientalism evolved from Frederic Church’s biblically inspired paintings to Tiffany and Company’s decorative arts to Hollywood cult figure Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik.
“Noble Dreams” offers viewers a rich visual feast and, particularly for those who study the accompanying catalogue, significant intellectual rewards.
The exhibition was curated for the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute by a team of Islamic scholars led by Holly Edwards, who teaches at Williams College and at the Clark. On view in Williamstown through September 4, the show will travel to The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore (October 3 to December 10) and The Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C. (February 3 to April 22, 2001).
The exhibition breaks new ground by drawing on the expertise of authorities specializing in Islamic art and culture – rather than American art – to examine Orientalist attitudes in our art. It is the most comprehensive museum show ever devoted to the subject.
As Clark director Michael Conforti notes in the catalogue, “A number of exhibitions have brought together the exotic imagery of the Near East, but none seems to have approached the subject with an attempt to cross so many boundaries between high and low art.”
“Noble Dreams” draws heavily on historian Edward Said’s landmark 1978 book, Orientalism, which examined the extent to which European and American artists, writers and scholars helped nurture a sense of Western superiority toward the people and cultures of the Middle East. Especially in France and Europe, Orientals in the Nineteenth Century were portrayed as lazy, oversexed, despotic, irrational and often childlike – “different” in ways that made them inferior to Westerners, who were seen to be virtuous, logical, rational, mature and generally “normal.” Fascination with harems and the Arab slave trade, in particular, fed associations of the Islamic world with licentious sex and male domination.
Since so many American artists studied in France, then the world’s art capital, and its art had such influence in this country, Orientalism became an important theme for an interesting group of US painters. On the other hand, lacking a colonialist agenda and coming from more heterogeneous backgrounds, American artists tended to put a more benign gloss on Near Eastern subjects, creating a genre distinct from their French mentors.
If Americans traveling to the Holy Land and North Africa arrived anticipating French-inspired stereotypes, once there they frequently painted what they saw rather than what they expected. Rather than focusing on naked women, lustful Turks, decapitations, slave scenes and other images of denigration and depravation that dominated French imagery of the area, American painters more often created picturesque views and costume studies of natives.
As Brian Allen, assistant director for curatorial affairs at the Clark observes in his catalogue essay, “American treatments of the Near East and Middle East, amazingly diverse in subject matter, were generally very positive and so various that it is difficult to tag them as ideological.”
An important figure in introducing Nineteenth Century America to the Orient was journalist Bayard Taylor, who traveled extensively in the region and returned to write widely read travel books and articles and, garbed in Arab costume, attracted a big following on the lecture circuit. In the 1855 portrait he commissioned by Thomas Hicks (1823-1890), the haughty traveler in full Arab garb fingers his hookah pipe while surveying distant Damascus. Like Lowell Thomas, who fascinated audiences a half century later with his tales of Lawrence of Arabia, Taylor provided mid-century listeners with an armchair experience of the Orient.
Encouraged by eyewitnesses like Taylor and often drawn to sites from the Bible, Americans traveled to the Holy Land in growing numbers after the Civil War. Because American regarded itself as the “New Jerusalem,” that ancient city appeared regularly in Nineteenth Century American artwork.
One of the first American painters to convey images of the Holy Land was Hudson River School stalwart Frederic Church (1826-1900), who traveled in the region after he had explored and recorded, to great acclaim, both Niagara Falls and South America. A devout Presbyterian, Church was anxious to convey his responses to the old Promised Land to audiences in America, the new Promised Land. He was motivated by both artistic and spiritual objectives.
In what may well be called his last great landscape, “Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives” (1870), Church executed a large (54¼ by 843/8 inches), detailed but distant cityscape that, by delineating ancient mosques, a Jewish cemetery and sacred Christian sites, suggested the endurance of timeless, ecumenical spiritual truths.
When he portrayed crumbling Islamic places in works like ‘Sunrise in Syria” (1874) the artist reflected contrasts between the Orient as a site of ruins and past glories and the New World as a forward-looking place of progress and potential. Church’s paintings of Jerusalem and Syria “suggest the complex matrix of Protestant conviction and Manifest Destiny that informed his work,” Edwards writes in the catalogue.
Church also made several paintings recording the unique beauty of ancient Petra. A grand view of the old temple viewed through a break in the rocks adorns the walls of his home, “Olana,” the fantastic Moorish castle he built in Hudson, N.Y., high above the Hudson River. In this idiosyncratic villa, which may be the greatest artist’s house in the world, Church displayed his trove of exotic artifacts amidst design motifs reflecting his far-flung travels, especially to the Orient.
Now maintained by New York State and open to the public, “Olana” is a testament to the artist’s faith, knowledge, genius and collecting sensibilities. It suggests that, as Edwards observes, “Church’s Orientalism was cumulatively as much a process of aesthetic and moral philosophizing as it was painting, collecting, synthesizing and designing.”
Two of the most unforgettable images in the exhibition, both owned by the Clark Art Institute, and created by French academic painter/teacher Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), point to his influence on early American Orientalist work – and how our art differed from the French approach to the topic.
Gérôme, a popular painter and teacher, fashioned taste for Orientalist art in the academic style and had an impact on several Americans who studied at his Paris atelier and became major proponents of paintings on the theme. Gérôme’s canvases reflected widespread French and European views of the Middle East as both an exotic and erotic place, filled with depravation, despotism, enslaved women and lustful appetites. Mirroring his countrymen’s colonialist ambitions and sense of superiority, Gérôme’s images tended to denigrate and demean Oriental life and society, while playing up its titillating and sexual aspects. “France reduced the Orient to colony, concubine, and indolent heathen, betraying the complex attitudes of an entangled imperialist,” says Edwards.
Like Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres before him, Gérôme specialized in depictions of odalisques – voluptuous, nude female slaves or concubines in harems or other subjugated settings. Overtly erotic, these images conveyed significant messages to Frenchmen who considered themselves more civilized and orderly than their counterparts in exotic Oriental society.
“The Slave Market” (1866) is Gérôme’s graphic depiction of four Arab men surrounding and intently inspecting a nude woman who is about to be auctioned off. A scene both titillating and offensive, its acute sense of sexual invasion is heightened by the fact that the exposed woman’s head is pulled back as one of the men thrusts his fingers into her mouth, “As an account of the humiliation and brutalization of Arab women, it remains a powerful, damning image,” observes Allen.
Gérôme’s “The Snake Charmer” (circa 1880), a masterpiece of assured academic painting, shows a nude young boy holding a snake aloft as he entertains a gathering of robed Arabs arrayed in front of a gorgeously decorated blue tile wall It is, says Edwards, “a balanced synthesis of figure study, ethnographic detail, and sexual overtones.”
In the postbellum years, our artists harbored little of the French attitude toward the Oriental world. Just emerging from colonial status, still grappling with the devastation of the Civil War, and lacking sustained relationships with the Middle East, America spawned artists who created art of a quite different nature.
It is true that Gérôme and other French teachers influenced style and sparked interest in Orientalist themes, but Americans painted the latter in ways more palatable to US viewers. A case in point was expatriate American painter Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928). Seldom mentioned in American art history books, Bridgman is a major figure in the exhibition because, according to Edwards, he was “arguably America’s preeminent Orientalist painter.”
A conspicuously conscientious pupil of Gérôme, Bridgman traveled repeatedly to North Africa, established an Algerian-inspired home and studio in Paris, maintained a staff dressed in Moorish garb, and carved out a niche as a successful academic painter of Orientalist genre scenes. He remained popular to the end of the century, but as interest in exotic imagery waned, his career faltered and he died in France in relative obscurity.
Bridgman’s paintings and writings emphasized the “otherness” of North Africa, noting contrasts between the backward, primitive nature of the Islamic Orient and the progress, materialism and industrialization of Europe and America. At the same time, there is little sense of sexual intrigue or confinement in his Orientalist works, but rather reflections of orderly domestic scenes, as depicted in much American art of this period.
Almost alone among American Orientalists, Bridgman featured Islamic women in his art, albeit clothed, unveiled and usually in unthreatening settings. His chaste females, a far cry from the sexually oriented odalisques of Ingres and Gérôme, suggested that Oriental women “were the heart of the home as well as the focus of covert male desire,” says Edwards. Bridgman’s art evolved, writes Allen, “from a slavish devotion to Gérôme to an interpretation of the Orient colored by….[his] own American heritage.”
In “The Bath” (1890) Bridgman showed an Algerian woman (presumably a mother) and infant in a moment of relaxed intimacy. It is “a scene as wholesome as Gérôme’s [“The Slave Market”] is depraved,” observes Allen.
“Similar to many other late Nineteenth Century depictions of mother and child, this representation grants the Oriental woman a maternal identity and larger purview than was typically admitted to stereotypical harem inmates,” writes Edwards. “In so doing, the picture universalizes the standards of domesticity that were valued in America.”
In the context of this show, Bridgman emerges as an interesting artist worthy of further study – and exhibitions.
Another overlooked artist, dubbed by Edwards “arguably the most enterprising of the American Orientalist painters,” is Bridgman’s friend and fellow expatriate, Edwin Lord Weeks (1849-1903). A native of New England who also studied with Gérôme and stayed on in Paris, Weeks traveled in the Orient and ultimately in India, recording his observations in both words and numerous canvases.
Week’s dramatic and impressive masterpiece – a highlight of the exhibition – is “Interior of the Mosque at Cordova” (1880). A somewhat fabricated scene, it features an Islamic religious leader holding up a flag and exhorting a crowd of kneeling followers. He stands before a mosaic-covered entrance to the shrine, while the view down the long vista of arches documents the enormity of the Great Mosque and the multitude of assembled worshippers.
Measuring 56 by 72 inches, this vivid canvas seems a tribute to the grandeur, power and architectural achievements of the Moors in Spain hundreds of years ago. It is from the collection of The Walters Art Gallery.
The show serves to introduce many to a little-known artist, Ella Ferris Pell (1846-1922), who studied at the Cooper Union in New York and, on a modest budget, traveled widely in the Middle East and North Africa. After further study in Paris, Pell submitted a large and assured painting of “Salomé” (1890) to the Salon. Whereas most images of the biblical dancing girl depicted her as a sensual figure, Pell, perhaps reflecting her own situation as an independent woman artist, showed her as a “self-assured and forceful peasant woman,” in Edwards’s words.
The remainder of Pell’s career is somewhat obscure, but her diaries and paintings of “Salomé” are interesting elements of the current display.
International superstar John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who visited Morocco, Egypt and Palestine in the course of his peripatetic career, drew on observations of the Orient for several fascinating paintings.
His celebrated symphony in white, another of the Clark’s holdings, “Fumée d’ambre gris (Ambergris Smoke)” (1880), depicts a robed woman inhaling ambergris from a censer under a high archway. “This stately Mohammedan…is beautiful and memorable,” said astute critic Henry James. It is more of an exercise in aesthetic painting than an exploration of the Orient.
Unfortunately not in the exhibition is Sargent’s highly sensuous “Study of an Egyptian Girl” (1891), which was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Decidedly exotic and erotic, even to jaded Twenty-first Century eyes, this naked, dark-skinned image contrasts vividly with the painter’s portraits of the British and American elite.
Other significant American artists who traveled to the Orient and recorded their observations included Henry Ossawa Tanner, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Elihu Vedder, Albert Pinkham Ryder, William Sartain, Robert Swain Gifford, Samuel Colman, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Charles Sprague Pearce and Francis David Millet.
Tanner (1859-1937), the pious African-American who made his career in France, frequently journeyed to North Africa and the Holy Land, creating numerous landscapes and paintings on biblical themes. Alas, only one of his accomplished canvases, the haunting “Christ Appearing to Nicodemus” (1899), is included in this show.
R. Swain Gifford, in spite of lacking formal academic training, became a respected landscapist and important figure in the New York art world. After traveling to North Africa and Egypt, he displayed regional memorabilia in his studio, dressed in exotic finery and concentrated on Orientalist pictures. A Luminist painter of light and vivid colors, he conveyed the vastness, silence and unusual hues of the Middle Eastern landscape, along with various figures and animals and a colorful fountainhead, in “An Arab Fountain (Near Cairo)” (1876).
Gifford also contributed beautiful watercolor illustrations to one of the many editions of The Arabian Nights or The Thousand and One Nights that were highly popular in postbellum years. “The Roc’s Egg” (1874), from the collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum, depicts tiny figures swarming around a giant bird’s egg in an episode from the tales of Sinbad and the Sailor.
The Arabian Nights also inspired paintings by artists such as H. Siddons Mowbray (1858-1928), who is best known for his murals at The Morgan Library and the University Club in New York. One of Mowbray’s masterpiece paintings, which was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition, was “Rose Harvest” (1887). It likely illustrated a setting from Thomas Moore’s popular Lalla Rookh.
John LaFarge (1835-1910), a gifted artist in many genres, toured the South Seas and Japan, but never set foot in North Africa or the Middle East. He utilized diverse sources in a fearsome 1868 engraving to illustrate Fisherman and the Genie in Riverside Magazine for Young People.
Tiffany (1848-1933), who started out as a painter, always claimed his visits to Morocco and Egypt in the 1870s deeply influenced his oeuvre. Painted with a restrained palette, “On the Way between Old and New Cairo” (circa 1872) offers a dusty, panoramic view of a large group of figures and animals arrayed against a hazy backdrop punctuated by domes and minarets. Like Church, Tiffany went on to make Orientalism a continual theme after he turned to his highly successful career in the decorative arts and interior design.
One major artist who did not travel to the region, but used Orientalism to good effect in his art and in shaping his public persona was the redoubtable William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). In “The Moorish Warrior” (1878), executed during his student days in Munich, he demonstrated his technical virtuosity and utilized studio artifacts to evoke an imagined Orient. Measuring a whopping 583/8 by 935/8 inches, this ambitious canvas predated Chase’s use of exotic objects and design elements in his fabulous space in New York’s Tenth Street Studio building.
On view are examples of ways in which Orientalism intersected with the Aesthetic Movement in the creation of decorative arts pieces. For example, an “Alhambra Vase” (1881), an earthenware jar based on those made in Spain around the Fourteenth Century, was decorated by Cordelia A. Plimpton, a member of the Cincinnati Pottery Club, with Americanized images of Middle Eastern scenes.
Tiffany parlayed his early fascination with the Orient into designs for furniture and household objects that invoked motifs from the region. The exhibition showcases such Tiffany and Company creations as a tea service, a rosewood secretary and a delicately carved “Moorish Desk” (circa 1885), designed for lavishly decorated smoking rooms in the mansions of wealthy Americans. (Those interested in this facet of American interior design will want to see what is thought to be the earliest surviving smoking room in this country, in the extraordinary Victorian Mansion in Portland, Me.)
Tiffany and Company also imported objects of western fabrication that approximated Oriental originals, such as two densely decorated golden ceramic bottles, dating to around 1890, displayed in the show. These and other objects, often distributed by mail-order businesses and sold in large department stores, increasingly introduced Orientalist décor into middle-class US homes.
The exhibition explores ways in which the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893 conveyed notions of Orientalism to the nation. In an effort to trumpet America’s modernity, technological progress and cultural achievements, fair organizers constructed a glittering, Beaux-Arts “White City” that announced our arrival as a world power. Displays of American superiority were, in effect, counterbalanced by the lively Midway Plaisance, a showcase of end-of-the-century ethnography, its exhibitions ranging from a Lapland village to recreation of a “Cairo street.”
Displays of people, places and objects from the Middle East and North Africa – touted to be “the real thing” – were highly popular, running the gamut from belly dancers (performing the much ballyhooed “hoochy-coochy”), Bedouins and turbaned Moors to camels, donkeys and monkeys to Islamic architectural settings. Understandably, this stereotypical and somewhat fabricated evocation of the Orient “was belittled and demeaned by anthropologists, fair organizers and ultimately, the American public,” says Edwards. All this did was to convey the mystique of the Orient to masses of Americans living in an increasingly consumer-driven, mass-culture society.
In the Twentieth Century, savvy modern advertising people were quick to exploit Orientalist themes in visually aggressive images to market mass-produced consumer products. Links between the Middle East and sweets were employed to sell candy, as exemplified by a large “Oriental Delights Trade Sign” (circa 1920) for a candy factory in Hoboken, N.J. that combined the slogan “Orient’s Most Famous Sweets” with images of minarets and a domed mosque.
Building on the public’s association of smoking with the Middle East – enhanced by paintings such as those by Hicks and Bridgman and furnishings by Tiffany displayed elsewhere in the exhibition – the booming tobacco industry, particularly the monopolistic American Tobacco Company, made extensive use of Orientalia in its advertising.
Ads for Fatima cigarettes, featuring a veiled harem beauty (circa 1890-1929), mixed elements of romance, self-indulgence and sexual innuendo, while Omar cigarettes employed a moonlit vignette of a rotund sultan and svelte maiden to sell its product.
The manner in which Orientalism infiltrated American popular culture was reflected in depictions of a skimpily clad “Salomé” (1909) by Ash Can School leader Robert Henri (1865-1929), which captured the brazen allure of the archetypical dancing girl, whose performance was emulated on numerous stages early in the new century.
The popularity of Orientalist themes on the silver screen was suggested by a painting by another Ash Can School realist, John Sloan (1871-1951). In “Movies” (1913) a brightly lit marquee announcing A Romance of the Harem beckoned city strollers into the theater.
In the 1920s, Rudolph Valentino became a superstar in the movie The Sheik, which capitalized on the romance and mystery of the Orient, while Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. cut a swashbuckling figure in the classic cinematic romance, The Thief of Baghdad. Movie theaters themselves were designed with archways, minarets and other exotic Oriental motifs.
Shriners, the playful Masons, made a kind of male Orientalist fashion statement when they adopted the fez, jacket, scimitar and other Middle Eastern trappings in their pursuit of fun and ritual.
Orientalism reached its height in women’s fashions just before World War I, led by innovative French couturier Paul Poiret (1879-1944), who introduced a new look of harem pants and turbans to which American women responded enthusiastically. His silver lame and green gauze dress, “‘1002nd Night’ Dress Ensemble with Turban” (1911), and a Baron Adolph de Meyer photograph (circa 1913) of artist-patron-museum founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in a flared Léon Bakst tunic and harem trousers suggest the extent to which Orientalizing garments differed from the corseted, confined fashions of the day.
As this vast, diverse and fascinating exhibition demonstrates, American Orientalism was manifested in many forms and styles over the course of 60 years. The story of this distinctive American phenomenon, which came to an end with the onset of the Great Depression, is well told in this pioneering show and catalogue.
The 242-page, fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, with essays by five Islamic scholars led by Edwards, contains much enlightenment and food for thought. While the text may be a bit academic for lay readers, it is informative reading and will certainly be an invaluable resource for scholars for a long time to come. With a chronology and extensive bibliography, this volume, handsomely published by the Clark Art Institute and Princeton University Press, is a good buy at $60 (hardcover) and $29.95 (softcover).
(Those interested in the subject will want to keep an eye out for “A Distant Muse: Orientalist Works from the Dahesh Museum of Art,” on view September 5 to December 30 at New York City’s up-and-coming Dahesh Museum of Art. Through 50 works, the exhibition will explore art produced by Orientalists in Europe and the role that art played in shaping and reflecting the complex relationship between the Occident and the Orient or Middle East. Included will be paintings by Bridgman, Gérôme and many others.)
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is at 220 South Street. For information, 41¾58-2303. The Walters Art Gallery is at 600 North Charles Street in Baltimore, Md. For information, 410/547-9000. The Mint Museum of Art is at 2730 Randolph Road in Charlotte, N.C. For information 704/337-2000.
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