What is Orientalism?

Orientalism is primarily a term used for the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists.

Depictions of Islamic "Moors" and "Turks" (imprecisely named Muslim groups of North Africa and West Asia) can be found in Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art. In Biblical scenes in Early Netherlandish painting, secondary figures, especially Romans and Jews, were given exotic costumes that distantly reflected the clothes of the Near East. The Three Magi in Nativity scenes were an especial focus for this. Renaissance Venice had a phase of particular interest in depictions of the Ottoman Empire in painting; Gentile Bellini, who travelled to Constantinople and painted the Sultan, and Vittore Carpaccio were the leading exponents. By then the depictions were more accurate, with men typically dressed all in white. The depiction of Oriental carpets in Renaissance painting sometimes draws from Orientalist interest, but more often just reflects the prestige these expensive objects had in the period.

Turquerie, which began as early as the late 15th century, and continued until at least the 18th.

In the nineteenth century, when more artists traveled to the Middle East, they began representing more numerous scenes of Oriental culture. In many of these works, they portrayed the Orient as exotic, colorful and sensual. Such works typically concentrated on Near-Eastern Islamic cultures, as those were the ones visited by artists as France became more engaged in North Africa. French artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres painted many works depicting Islamic culture, often including lounging odalisques. They stressed both lassitude and visual spectacle. The later Russian artist Alexander Roubtzoff was also fascinated by what he saw on travels to Tunisia.

When Ingres, director of the French Académie de peinture, painted a highly colored vision of a turkish bath, he made his eroticized Orient publicly acceptable by his diffuse generalizing of the female forms (who might all have been the same model.) More open sensuality was seen as acceptable in the exotic Orient. This imagery persisted in art into the early 20th century, as evidenced in Matisse's orientalist semi-nudes from his Nice period, and his use of Oriental costumes and patterns