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Orientalism refers principally to the academic study during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries of the peoples, languages, and cultures of North Africa, the Middle East, and, to a lesser degree, South Asia. In art history, the term refers to a school of European painters of the nineteenth century who took the peoples of these regions as their primary subjects. Since the publication of Edward Said’s (1935–2003) widely influential study titled simply Orientalism (1978), the term has become pejorative, suggesting a critical orientation or mode of representation that privileges the Western over the Eastern or idealizes the East in a manner that reflects European desires and political and economic interests.
What is called, after Said, orientalist discourse, developed during the era of most active European colonialism, from the early 1800s to World War I (1914–1918). Among the first important works accurately called orientalist were those produced by figures associated with colonialist endeavors in North Africa and the Middle East, including the massive, twenty-four-volume Description de l’Égypte, produced by approximately 160 scholars who accompanied Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) on his ultimately failed expedition to conquer Egypt in 1798. The Description, completed in 1829, is typically orientalist in, on the one hand, the idealization of Egyptian people and places in its many beautifully rendered images, and, on the other, its overall concern with defining and classifying all the cultural and physical aspects of Egypt toward the ultimate objective of controlling its people and natural resources.
The nineteenth century can rightly be called the orientalist era in the arts, as works across the spectrum of literature and painting drew on the myth of the Orient that was being produced by the functionaries of colonialism and the scholars of philology. While French painters such as Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) are widely regarded as the preeminent orientalists in the visual arts, the movement was widespread and included Frederick Arthur Bridgman (American, 1847–1928), Frederick Goodall (British, 1822–1904), Louis-Joseph Anthonissen (Belgian, 1849–1913), Ludwig Deutsch (German, 1855–1935), and Leopold Carl Müller (Austrian, 1834–1892). Orientalist literary artists include Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), and Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), to list only a very few.
Muslim women were a particular focus of orientalist artists. The “slave market,” “harem,” and “bath” received seemingly endless treatments. Gérôme’s images characteristically give the impression of the voyeur who has lifted or pulled back the “veil” to reveal the hidden mystery of the Orient. Women’s bodies are erotically on display, often, in fact, under examination by some Arab buyer or slave trader. The precise response of a European audience to such images is difficult to ascertain, but generally the erotic construction of an Arab “other” appealed to a patriarchal sense of superiority and interest in control.
The matters of the European sense of superiority and interest in control can also be seen in orientalist scholarship. Non-Western societies were described as backward and barbaric, fundamentally incapable of social, political, or technological modernization. An important point is that the works of orientalist scholars were often not intentionally or explicitly motivated toward the interests of Western power. The assumptions of superiority and control were embedded in the scholarship, often despite the fact that an individual scholar might regard his or her subject very sympathetically. However, it is certainly true that whatever the disposition of the orientalist scholar, his or her work was a critical part of the general body of knowledge that facilitated and justified the control and exploitation of colonized peoples.
The publication in 1978 of Said’s study unleashed a fierce and continuing debate. The debate is wide ranging and contains multiple positions, though it can be roughly divided between two groups. Some believe Said’s work has overly politicized the academic study of non-Western peoples and unfairly characterized the work of devoted scholars. Others, particularly the generation of scholars who pursued their graduate work in the later 1980s and 1990s, hold that Said’s work is a particularly valuable contribution to the broad examination of the ideological assumptions and effects of intellectual works that purport to be disinterested.
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