Art History Lab

The Impact of Orientalism: From Art to Contemporary Critique

Understanding Orientalism: A Brief Overview

When we think of the Orient, what comes to mind? Perhaps exotic spices, dancing veiled women, or colorful fabrics it is a world that has been romanticized and idealized through the centuries.

This idealization is what Edward Said called Orientalism, a term that encompasses a set of assumptions and stereotypes about the East that have been perpetuated through literature, art, and popular culture. In this article, we will explore the definition and origins of Orientalism, as well as its presence in the world of art.

Definition and Origins of Orientalism

The term Orientalism was first coined by Said in his book, Orientalism, published in 1978. According to Said, Orientalism can be described as a Western discourse that creates a binary opposition between the West (the rational, civilized world) and the East (the irrational, exotic world).

This discourse is not just a matter of academic study or political discourse but is also a cultural phenomenon that shapes how the West perceives the East. The roots of Orientalism can be traced back to the early modern period when European powers began to colonize Africa and Asia.

These colonizers saw themselves as superior, having the right to conquer and civilize the uncivilized inhabitants of the East. This attitude was also reflected in the literature of the time, with writers depicting the East as a land of mystery and danger.

Orientalism was thus born out of a combination of imperialism, colonialism, and literary conventions.

Edward Said and Oriental Discourse

Edward Said was a Palestinian-American scholar who is best known for his work on Orientalism. In his book, Said argues that the Wests understanding of the East has been heavily influenced by Orientalist writers, painters, and scholars.

He says that Orientalism is not just an academic discipline but a body of knowledge that creates stereotypes, justifying Western colonization and domination of the East. One of Saids most famous works on Orientalism is his critique of the popular novel 1001 Nights (also known as the Arabian Nights).

Said points out that this collection of stories has been artificially constructed to align with Western fantasies about the Orient. He argues that the tales have been selected, translated, and edited to fit into the Western conception of the exotic East.

Orientalism in Art

The influence of Orientalism extended to the art world, with European artists beginning to produce works that depicted the East in an exotic and romantic light. These paintings were popularized during the 19th century when Europe was undergoing rapid industrialization and urbanization.

The Orient was seen as a place of escape and fantasy, representing a simpler way of life away from the grime and stress of the European city. Orientalist painters such as Jean-Lon Germe, Eugne Delacroix, and John Frederick Lewis became famous for their depictions of harems, bazaars, and landscapes.

Controversies and Critiques of Orientalist Art

While Orientalist paintings were celebrated during their time, there has been much controversy and critique of these works in recent times. Critics argue that these paintings perpetuate Orientalist stereotypes, portraying the East as a land of exoticism and subservience.

For example, the painting by Ingres The Turkish Bath has been criticized for its depiction of women in a subservient position, with the male gaze dominating the scene. Similarly, Germes painting The Snake Charmer has been criticized for portraying the East as a place of danger, where wild animals and mystical rituals are common.

In recent years, there has been a push towards decolonizing museums and questioning their role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Many museums have begun to have discussions around recontextualizing certain works to provide a deeper understanding of their history and cultural context.

This re-evaluation of Orientalist art is part of a larger movement towards a more diverse and inclusive representation of art.


In conclusion, Orientalism has had a profound impact on Western culture, shaping our understanding of the East in ways that are often harmful and inaccurate. Through the work of scholars like Edward Said and critiques by contemporary artists, we are beginning to see a shift towards a more nuanced and critical understanding of Orientalism.

As we continue to re-contextualize art and dismantle harmful stereotypes, we can move towards a more inclusive and diverse representation of the world around us. Prominent Orientalist Paintings: A Closer Look

Orientalist paintings are a product of their time, reflecting the attitudes and prejudices of their creators.

They offer a glimpse into a world that has been both idealized and fetishized by Western culture. In this section, we will take a closer look at some of the most prominent Orientalist paintings and examine their themes and motifs.

Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa by Antoine Jean Gros

Antoine Jean Gros created this painting in 1804, shortly after Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria. The painting depicts Napoleon visiting French soldiers suffering from the plague in a Jaffa hospital.

The aim of the painting was to present Napoleon as a heroic and compassionate leader, risking his own life to visit the sick and dying. However, the painting has been criticized for its Orientalist elements.

The sick and dying in the painting are presented as passive, submissive, and exoticized. The contrast between the pale, sickly French soldiers and the dark-skinned Arabs reinforces the idea of the Orient as a place of disease and danger.

La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Ingres painted this iconic image of a nude woman reclining on a chaise longue in 1814, during the early years of the 19th century Orientalist art movement. The painting has been praised for its technical skill, in particular, Ingres’ mastery of classical form.

However, it has also been criticized for its Orientalist depiction of a harem slave. The woman in the painting has elongated limbs and an exaggerated back, which has been interpreted as an attempt to exoticize her body.

The painting also feeds into the stereotype of the East as a place of sexual pleasure, with the exotic elements of the setting reinforcing this idea.

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Eugne Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix created this painting in 1834, after a trip to Morocco. The painting depicts a group of women in a domestic setting, engaged in various activities such as reading and playing instruments.

The painting has been praised for its rich colors and the exquisite detail of the setting. However, the painting has also been criticized for its Orientalist elements.

The women in the painting are presented as passive objects of the male gaze, with their features exaggerated and sensualized. The setting itself is also exoticized, with the luxurious textiles and patterns adding to the Orientalist fantasy.

The Snake Charmer by Jean-Lon Grme

Jean-Leon Gerome created this painting in 1879, during the height of the Orientalist movement. The painting depicts a boy playing a flute to a cobra, with a group of Arab men looking on in a desert landscape.

The painting has been praised for its technical mastery and the dramatic tension created by the cobra and the boy. However, the painting has also been criticized for its Orientalist elements.

The boy and the men are presented as exotic and mystical, adding to the idea of the East as a place of superstition and danger. The contrast between the pale boy and the dark-skinned men reinforces the idea of the Orient as a place of the Other.

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple by William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt created this painting in 1854, during the height of the Orientalist movement. The painting depicts the young Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem, surrounded by a group of Jewish elders.

The painting has been praised for its intricate detail and the luminous quality of the light. However, the painting has also been criticized for its Orientalist elements.

The Jews in the painting are presented as exotic caricatures, reinforcing the idea of the East as a place of religious mysticism and fanaticism. The focus of the painting is on the young Jesus, with the Jewish figures relegated to the background.

Orientalism in Contemporary Art

Contemporary artists have begun to explore Orientalism in new ways, reframing the Orientalist narrative to provide a more nuanced view of the East. These artists are using their work to challenge stereotypes and to assert their own identities as members of a diverse global community.

One such artist is Yinka Shonibare, who explores the intersection between African and European cultures. His installation, The Swing (after Fragonard) features a replica of Fragonard’s 18th-century painting, with the female subject wearing an African-print dress.

By juxtaposing the European canon with African textiles, Shonibare challenges the idea that these cultures are separate and distinct. Another artist, Walid Raad, uses humor and satire to examine Orientalism.

His series of photographs, The Loudest Muttering is Over: Documents from the Atlas Group Archive presents a fictional archive of photographs and documents related to the Lebanese Civil war. These documents are presented as found archives, but are in fact created by Raad as a commentary on the ways in which narratives are constructed.


Orientalism in Contemporary Art

Contemporary artists are also reframing Orientalism through their use of media and technology. One example is the video, Arabesque by Shirin Neshat.

The video features a group of women clad in black, who perform a dance that is a mix of traditional Persian dance and contemporary dance. The video challenges the idea of the veil as a symbol of oppression, portraying it as a form of resistance and empowerment.

Another artist, Michael Rakowitz, uses food to explore the impact of Orientalism on Middle Eastern culture. His project, Enemy Kitchen features a food cart that serves Iraqi dishes, recipes printed on paper from declassified US military documents.

The project challenges the idea that war and oppression erase culture, asserting instead that culture is a source of resistance and resilience.


The legacy of Orientalism can be seen in the art world, both in the past and present. The works created during the height of the Orientalist movement reflect the prejudices and assumptions of Western culture.

However, contemporary artists are using their work to challenge stereotypes and to assert their own identities. Through their use of media and technology, these artists are reframing the Orientalist narrative, offering a more nuanced and diverse view of the East.

In conclusion, Orientalism has played a significant role in shaping Western perceptions of the East, perpetuating stereotypes and biases that have had far-reaching consequences. From the origins of Orientalism and Edward Said’s critique of Oriental discourse, to the prominent Orientalist paintings that romanticized and exoticized the Orient, it is clear that this phenomenon has had a lasting impact on art and culture.

However, contemporary artists are challenging and reframing Orientalism, using their work to question and dismantle harmful stereotypes, and offering a more diverse and inclusive representation of the East. This serves as a reminder that our understanding of other cultures should be approached with critical thinking and an awareness of the power dynamics that shape our perceptions.

By examining and deconstructing Orientalism, we can strive for a more nuanced and empathetic view of the world around us.

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