Orientalism

 
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Three Vassar Girls Abroad
(Estes and Lauriat, 1883)

 

Movements like Egyptian Revival and Japonisme were part of a more general increase of interest in all things oriental or exotic during the 19th century. These curiosities had been present in the past, but with the increase of political interaction with the East, more European travel in these areas, and a climb in imports, these styles and cultures captured the Romantic imagination of the time, and exotic foreign themes cropped up in literature and art. Another reason for this interest was the growth of industrialization and migration to urban centers; oriental cultures represented idealistic paradises to which Westerners could escape.

Orientalism was particularly popular among painters. Artists like Eugène Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres painted numerous images with oriental subject matter: Bedouin herdsmen, foreign soldiers, harem girls, market scenes, biblical scenes set in the Middle East. Often, though, these scenes spoke more about the manner in which Europeans projected fantasies of exoticism, violence and sexuality on other cultures than they served as accurate representations of other nations.

 
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Four Thousand Miles of African Travel
(Baker, Pratt and Company, 1875)

Orientalism also had an impact on architecture and the decorative arts. Tourism and reference books gave designers access to the styles and themes of other cultures; for example, Sir William Chambers's Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture and Dresses, etc. (1757) provided Europeans with one of the earliest accurate representations of Chinese architecture and decoration. In the 18th century, Chinese and Moorish buildings were popular for the fantasy garden designs of the aristocracy. One well-known example is the Chinese Pagoda in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, designed by Chambers. An early 19th century example of a rather lavish foray into exoticism was George IV's Royal Pavilion at Brighton, England, designed by John Nash, who created an "Indian" exterior and a chinoiserie interior. It became popular to incorporate a "Turkish" or "Indian" room into one's house or palace. In addition to imported goods, many decorative arts manufacturers provided for these rooms by making objects that imitated, more or less accurately, the ornamental styles of other regions.

Owen Jones was a particular advocate of Islamic architecture and design. He published a significant study on the architecture of the Alhambra, an Islamic palace in Spain, and he himself designed in it and other oriental styles. His famous Grammar of Ornament (1856) included examples of Islamic decorations along with a range of other historical and oriental designs, and this book is one of the more accurate 19th century descriptions of many of these styles.

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Winters in Algeria
(Harper and Brothers, 1890)

Book cover designers also explored oriental themes in their art. Stories set in non-European lands were the most likely candidates for this treatment. The cover designs tried to incorporate various oriental ornamental styles, taken from design manuals like Grammar of Ornament or created out of the artists' fertile imaginations. There is not one definitive feature of these covers; rather, they engage various kinds exotic architectural, decorative and landscape forms and try to give the book the flavor of that distant land. An Orientalist style cover was not so much about merely depicting foreign subject matter; rather, the designers also tried to mimic some aspect of that other culture in ornament or style.

 

 

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Thornton, Lynne. The Orientalists: Painter Travelers, 1828-1908. Paris: ACR Edition, 1983.

                       
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