The Orientalist Sale in Sotheby’s London, now in its seventh season, will be held on April 24. Comprising over 60 lots, the sale will feature works that provide historical insights into the Arab, Ottoman, and Islamic worlds as seen from the perspective of European artists of the time. The exhibition will be showcased alongside the Arts of the Islamic World auction as part of Orientalist & Middle Eastern Week.
Orientalist art exists in an awkward space. Not just for me, an Arab who has studied Art History, but for many other people who find the movement problematic for a number of reasons. When it comes to representations of Arabs and the Middle east, it has been categorized as racist and eroticizing the East at one end of the spectrum or playing a more subtle part in informing and misinforming how Arabs existed on the other.
The argument goes that along with other misinformed and appropriated cultural artifacts, which includes pseudo translated texts, many of the ideas that exist in Orientalist art has filtered down over the years to inform many contemporary representations of Arabs and the Orient in popular literature and film. It’s a multi-faceted and valid argument that has fueled many art historians, critics, writers and shrewd online social commentators.
“Contrary to Edward Said’s thesis (which takes issue primarily with written text, not paintings), I would say that the majority of Orientalist painters did not have a colonialist or political agenda, but were genuinely fascinated by the cultures they depicted,’ says Claude Piening, Sotheby’s Head of Orientalist Paintings when asked about the authenticity of the scenes depicted in many of the Orientalist works on sale at Sotheby’s.
Piening also brings up the important point of distinguishing between the different artists and styles within Orientalist art in order to have a broader understanding of the intentions of the artists and the movement in general.
“In the Orientalist Sale, we try to focus on artists who actually travelled to the region and experienced for themselves the cultures they painted. Gérôme and Ralli were regular visitors to Cairo; Bridgman summered in Algeria; while many artists made the region their home: Déhodencq lived in Tangiers; Majorelle in Marrakesh, where he built himself a house and studio; Dinet not only settled permanently in Algeria, but converted to Islam,” says Piening.
To the unfamiliar eye, it’s hard to see the DNA of each of these artists in the selection of Orientalist paintings on sale at Sotheby’s. However, as Piening tells us, there are three categories we can examine within the Orientalist art movement.
There are the artists who followed a more rigorous academic technique with extreme attention to realistic detail. French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme would be the archetypal example of this style. Gérôme inspired many other artists including Theodoros Ralli as the painters of the Vienna school which include Ludwig Deutsch, Charles Wilda, Raphael von Ambros, Arthur von Ferraris, and Rudolf Ernst.
Leaning towards a more romantic style, Adolf Schreyer, Alfred Déhodencq and Henri Rousseau all used expressive brushstrokes, creating a strong sense of movement and preferred bold colours over the precision of line. They were heavily influenced by the French Romantic artist a leader of the French Romantic school Eugène Delacroix.