Orientalism is the imitation or representation of elements found in the Eastern world in art history, literature, and cultural studies. The term Orientalism refers to the work of Western artists who specialized in oriental themes that arose from their travels in West Asia in the 19th century. During that period, artists and scholars were described as Orientalists, particularly in France, where the art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary popularized the disparaging use of the term "Orientalist". Despite the social disdain for representative artistic styles, the Orientalist French Painters Society was founded in 1893 with Jean-Léon Gérôme as honorary president.
Since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism in 1978, much scholarly discourse has used the term "Orientalism" to refer to the general Western treatment of Western attitudes toward Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies. In Said's analysis, the West rendered these social essences static and undeveloped, thus constructing a view of Eastern cultures that can be studied, depicted and reproduced in the service of imperial power. Said wrote that this conception implied the idea of a developed, rational, flexible, and superior Western society.
These Orientalist harem paintings also evoked a cultivated, indulgent existence that many Westerners longed for as opposed to the popular "Roman" paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, such as The Tepidarium. Islamic art and oriental motifs entered the decorative arts in many houses in England and France, for example, mosaic art in the homes of Orientalists Frederic Leighton.
Expression of Orientalism
The appeal of Orientalist imagery lies in painting and printmaking. Numerous 20th-century artists, including Renoir (1841-1919), Matisse (1869-1954), Paul Clay (1879-1940), Kandinsky (1866-1944), and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), experimented with Orientalist themes.
Despite the ephemeral changes in its expression, Orientalism still shows a general unity in values, suggesting that Western society perceives the Eastern world in a largely fixed light. Other theorists, such as Homi K. Bhabha, argued that the people of the East have quietly changed the meaning of "Orientalism" after a long period of struggle.
By examining the several transformations of the theme of "Orientalism" in European art in the 19th century, it is found that the connotation of "Orientalism" has undergone essential shifts many times, which is not stable but reveals the existence of the inner colonial system and inherent contradiction, which is intuitively manifested as the adjustment of the "gaze" relationship in visual art. However, these contradictions and migrations do not originate from changes in the "East" itself but are caused by changes in the power relations within the "Western" culture.
Changes Brought About by Orientalism
Among all the Orientalist paintings, the most influential works are the harem paintings. Delacroix, famous for his Liberty Leading the People, was also a famous Orientalist painter, and his The Death of Sardanapalus was so renowned that it eventually became the trumpet work of Romantic painting, overturning the neo-classical trend in French art and world painting. Now in the Louvre, The Death of Sardanapalus mixes eroticism, violence, mystery, and Oriental elements in a visually striking way that speaks for itself in the early 19th century.