The world of the “exotic” and strangeness is an inherently interesting subject matter among people. Fascinations with the “other” world are depicted in poems, novels, literary descriptions and art as an attempt to understand, romanticise or exploit another culture. The Napoleonic expedition to Egypt from 1798 to 1799 brought forth a heightened interest among artists to explore the world of the Oriental and spurred a torrent of “Orientalists” which became a pervasive force in 19th Century Western art.
An “Orientalist” is rather a broad term to describe artists who either portrayed an oriental theme or used the oriental as a subject matter, whether or not the artist has travelled and experienced the foreign lands or have stayed within the boundaries of their studios.
Depictions of the Oriental in visual representations influence the Western perception as images materialize into the public realm. Some portrayals of Eastern culture are forms of documentations from an objective perspective while other portrayals are subjugated to the myths and fantasies produced from within European society that affects the stereotyping of class, race and gender of the Oriental.
I will be discussing four paintings by a 19th century Orientalist painter, Eugene Delacroix: The Massacre of Chios (1824), The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834), and The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage (1845), as an attempt to observe the myths, stereotypes of class, race and gender of the Orient that have the potential to arise in images produced by the artist.
Visions of the exotic, whether positive or negative, are frequently romanticized by Oriental artists. By romanticized I mean the images are from a subjective perspective, appealing to the imagination of the artist, and provoking emotions through the spectators with the use of exaggeration or partiality. The Massacre of Chios is a response from Delacroix to an actual event in 1822 during the Greek’s struggle for independence from the Ottomans.
The Turkish troops took revenge for the rebellions by killing 20,000 innocent people on the island of Chios while selling the rest to slavery despite the fact that a vast majority of people living on the island of Chios did not participate in the revolt against the Turks. Though Delacroix represents an actual event in history, the scene itself is imagined to appeal to his own understanding and interpretation of the event and to appeal particular emotions from the viewer. The Turkish troop is characterized as the savage, illainous instigators of violence and war. For example, the Turkish soldier rearing a horse on the right appears to be merciless as he forcefully captures a Greek woman and ties her to the end of his horse. The Greeks, on the other hand, are in the forefront and confronts the viewer, displaying a sense of victimization in their posture and gaze. They lie in heaps; seemingly huddle together for comfort from the terrors of the massacre. Their stares seem to be blank, projecting apathy and helplessness to their situation.
The viewers are compelled to feel sympathy for the victims as they lay waiting, exhausted and hopeless, for their terrible fate, and feel horror and disgust at the brutality of the Turks. The romanticized view of the oriental is also prevalent in The Death of Sardanapalus. In contrast to The Massacre of Chios, the scene in The Death of Sardanapalus is not derived from reality but rather a fantastical creation, constructed from a legend and influenced by a diverse number of pictorial and literary sources.
The denouement of the Assyrian monarch, Sardanapalus, caught the interest of and inspired Delacroix. In the story, after living a life of debauchery the Assyrian monarch decides to end the immorality by ordering his servants to destroy all the pleasures of his life, including his odalisques, riches, pets and attendants, and burn to ashes with him in his funeral pyre. In the image, the Assyrian monarch, Sardanapalus, is in his funeral pyre, reclining on a magnificent bed, surrounded by heaps of scattered precious objects with a chaotic carnage scene happening right before his eyes.
The hectic scene depicts suicide, sadism, sensuality, despotism, despair, resignation, excess—the list is long, but most notably it depicts a fantasized exoticism. The interpretation of the Oriental in this painting displays the turbulent imagination of the artist. It is a fantasy of the luxurious yet tragic Orient. In conjunction to the romanticized view of the Oriental, the idea of escaping to a new and “exotic” place and away from the mundane life of the Western culture was also a fascination among many people.
Many Westerners, including Delacroix himself, flocked to the lands of the Orientals to experience the “exoticisms” first hand. In a way, the portrayal of the Oriental The Death of Sardanapalus is a way of satisfying the Western urge for the exotic experience without actually being there. The constant movement, violence, sensuality and colourful expression are set up much like a theatre where its purpose is not to instruct or offer an insight into the
Eastern culture but to entertain the spectator with its compelling narrative and forms. The spectator is offered a voyeuristic witness to the “exotic” orgy of blood, flesh and gold. Moreover, both The Massacre of Chios and The Death of Sardanapalus highlight the violent and barbaric aspect of the Eastern culture. The images of war and destruction are dominant in both paintings. The Massacre of Chios somewhat shows the insensitivity and irrationality of the Turkish people as they murder innocent people.
The Death of Sardanapalus, with even more strikingly barbaric imageries shows the Assyrian to be immoral and depraved as he orders the slaughtering of innocent people. In terms of gender portrayals in Orientalist paintings, fascinations with depictions of Eastern women in harems (a private living quarter in a Muslim household for odalisques or concubines) are popular imageries. The restricted and forbidden nature of the harem increases allure and exoticism for Western travellers where only the imagination of the voyager could take them there.
In Women if Algiers in Their Apartment, three odalisques are sumptuously clothed in a luxuriously decorated harem. In contrast to his earlier works, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment is a direct experience of Delacroix’s visit to Morocco. The realism of this painting is strikingly different from the overtly romanticized scene of Delacroix’s earlier works. The details of the costumers and ornament are sufficiently accurate that the information from the painting was used by an ethnographic Museum in Paris to study the way people dressed during the period.
Though with intent, The Women of Algiers is largely documentary, the visual interpretation is still somewhat “Romantic” in spirit. The servant woman on the right seems to pull back a curtain to reveal the otherwise forbidden scene to the spectator and entices the spectators to consume the visual pleasures of the scene. The postures of odalisques are portrayed in a modest yet enticing and sensual way. The sensuous, reclining body language of the odalisque on the left seems to invite the viewers to participate in the scene so that they can be served, entertained and pleasured.
The richness of the room and costume also contribute to the alluringness of the scene as it could be viewed as a paradise for males. Thus, the portrayal of women in this painting objectifies the view of Oriental women as slaves to pleasures of men of the Eastern and Western culture. Furthermore, though the portrayal of women in The Death of Sardanapalus is visually dramatically differently from the portrayal of women in Women of Algiers, the sensualised and objectified view of women are similar.
In The Death of Sardanapalus, the baring voluptuous bodies of the women are enticing to the viewer. Rather than wholly feeling sympathetic and aghast for the women in the scene, the viewer is invited to reveal a sadistic nature within them and gain visual pleasure from the sensuous twisting forms of the female body. The sexual possession and murder of the women is an assertion of absolute domination of the men and are made to be sacrificial objects for the Assyrian monarch.
From the portrayals in The Death of Sardanapalus and The Women of Algiers, there arises a discrepancy with reality between the exotic preconceptions of Oriental women and their relationship with Oriental males. Because women appeared to be highly sensualised and objectified in Oriental paintings, Muslim men are thought to be dedicated sensualists and the Islam religion is without morality (Stevens ed, 37). Even with the more covert sexually fantastical image of The Women of Algiers, it is titillating to the Western viewer yet still confirms that the Eastern are morally inferior.
But as Westerners travelled to the Eastern countries, many, like Gautier, realized their discrepancy between their own exotic preconceptions of a Muslim husband’s relationship with his wives. The romanticized and imaginative view of the Oriental in Western paintings speaks of Western power domination. As Edward Said said: “The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be Oriental … also because it could be – that is, submitted to being – made Oriental” (Said, p 5).
Though depictions of the Oriental world are essentially “made Oriental” and sometimes viewed as depreciative with barbaric and immoral undertones, Delacroix, and among other artists, expresses genuine interest and fascinations with the Eastern culture. Delacroix paid a huge compliment and admiration to the beauty and splendour of the Eastern culture by stating that “Rome is no longer to be found in Rome”. After Delacroix experienced the Morocco he seems to have adjusted his previous imaginative preconceptions of the Oriental and began to depict documentation-like pictures of the Oriental to capture his experience of Morocco.
The Sultan of Morocco and his Entourage is Delacroix’s attempt to capture and immortalise his successful meeting with the Sultan. The monumentality of the visit is captured in the picture as the sense of grandeur of the Sultan is communicated through the central figure. Compared to the three images I have discussed so far, The Sultan of Morocco contains no apparent sense of Western superiority in terms of morality and culture.
Rather, power and dignity is displayed from the portrayal of the Sultan as his army is situated submissively behind him and he is raised above everyone else on his horse. The depictions of Orientals in Orientalists paintings essentially embody the relationship between the Western and the Eastern. The veil of misunderstanding or misperception about Eastern culture created from imaginative portrayals in paintings speaks of the usage of another culture for pleasure, entertainment and escape from the mundane life.
The ambition of creating an “exotic” representation in many paintings is also a way of distancing the two cultures which also brings about the idea of domination and colonialism. Fascinations with the East are genuine in many artists and they move away from the romanticized preconception of Eastern culture and instead portray Orientals from a more objective perspective. “Orientalism tells us something about the Near East but far more about the state of mind of nineteenth-century Europe” (Stevens ed, 39)