The classic Orientalist model of a palace guard was Sub-Saharan and unquestionably masculine, as in this vision by Fabres y Costa

There is an abundance of ambiguity in Orientalist art. For Edward Said, a scholar of literature and music rather than the visual arts, those 19th-century Western paintings were distressingly black and white – or brownish and white. The artists were, in his very popular view, disparaging the people of the Middle East and North Africa. A collaborative exhibition of Orientalist painting between the British Museum and the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia shows a far more nuanced picture than that.

Who Were the ‘Orientals’?

The question that is so seldom addressed is the supposedly clear distinction between Westerners and those who were once known as ‘Orientals’. In literature it is possible for someone to be one or the other. On a canvas it is less straightforward. It is often hard to tell the ethnicity of the subject we are looking at, just as the artists did not necessarily identify themselves with the ‘West’. The originator of Orientalist painting, Eugène Delacroix, thought himself an outsider, of possible Peruvian descent; Baudelaire likened his appearance to a Malay. The subjects of his paintings are equally imprecise. When he first visited North Africa, his reaction was: ‘Greeks and Romans are here at my door… Arabs… look like Cato and Brutus’. For him they were descendants of the civilisations most admired in Europe and North America at that time – the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The point about spurious ethnicity is made in an entertaining fashion by James Thompson, curator of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland 30 years ago: ‘Some past and present writers would scoff at the term ‘Irish Orientalists’ since according to their theory, the Irish are Orientals, descendants of North Africans or races further East …’ .

It is easy to forget how special some Anglo-Saxon Victorians felt when faced with others who would now be considered ‘white’ but were regarded as a subspecies then. British travellers in Germany were sometimes appalled at the hideous, malnourished specimens they encountered. In some cases, things actually improved as they headed east. Edward Lear, well known as an author and illustrator, and less so as an Orientalist painter, could not wait to travel beyond Europe into the Islamic world. When he reached there, this renowned hypochondriac was so impressed by the Islamic Middle East that it was mainly fear of circumcision that deterred him from becoming a Muslim.

The Artist JL Gérôme

The Orientalist artist who is most often pilloried is also the most open to different interpretations. JL Gérôme was as highly regarded in the Ottoman capital as in France, and almost as highly as in North America. The most famous painting from his ceaselessly productive studio was The Snake Charmer, which appeared on the cover of Edward Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism. Gérôme was an anti-slaver whose Middle Eastern slave markets are no different from his Roman slave markets, except that the Roman audience is usually larger and more licentious. All these paintings were executed during or after the American Civil War. Were they a protest against slavery? His biggest market was America, where slavery continued in practice long after the Civil War.

Gérôme’s message was misunderstood earlier this year when his work received a rare airing on the street. The anti-immigration German nationalist party, Alternative für Deutschland, created a stir by making posters that used an 1866 painting of a female slave having her teeth inspected by a potential buyer. The AfD decided that this was a white woman being handled inappropriately by an Arab man. For viewers in the 19th century, she was presumed to be as much a part of the Oriental furniture as the indifferent crowd in the background.

Maxime Du Camp

Gérôme’s contemporary, the traveller and photographer Maxime Du Camp, who also considered himself an authority on matters of female flesh, described her as ‘an Abyssinian’. Gérôme’s devotion to Orientalism was matched by his addiction to travel: ‘The Orient is what I dream of most often… I have always had a nomadic disposition’. It is unlikely that he intended to disparage. He understood the inner hierarchy in the Orient, which was far from blameless. Just as in Europe, there was always one group looking down on another. Sadly, even in Islam, which Malcolm X found liberating after growing up as a black man in America, there was racism. The word ‘abid’ (Arabic for slave) is still sometimes uttered about those with dark skin as they move around modern Cairo, just as similar terms can be heard in the Deep South.

The Ottomans and Orientalist Painting

The Ottomans, who formed a ruling class in Egypt and elsewhere, considered the native Egyptians to be barely human. Gérôme noticed and recorded these distinctions, without endorsing them. Most of the servants, or possibly slaves, in his many bathhouse scenes are sub-Saharan Africans. He had never entered these inaccessible environments, but he knew  roughly how they worked. He also often painted the soldiers known as ‘Bashi-Bazouks’ – a term familiar to readers of Hergé’s Tintin adventures. Often from the Balkans, their light skin colour did not elevate them from being disorderly hired hands of the Ottomans. Gérôme painted their sub-Saharan colleagues with the same sensitivity. This could also be said for Gérôme’s pupil Théodore  Ralli, who shows a black palace guard threading pearls.

Orientalist artists used other situations to confirm the lack of prejudice that is supposed to exist in Islam, sometimes better than it has worked within Christian societies. A painting in the exhibition by another of Gérôme’s followers, Ludwig Deutsch, shows a venerable light-skinned Arab at prayer. A very similar scene, with an identical backdrop, shows a younger, sub-Saharan man in the same reverential position. The main difference between the two is that the younger Muslim has a sword and the older co-religionist a stick.

Rather than looking at such examples, critics like to point out the presence of those pale ladies in the bathhouse and assume they represent some sort of depraved captivity. Modern Western travellers are often surprised to find indigenous women of the Middle East and North Africa with colouring similar to their idea of ‘whiteness’. It seems that observers nowadays are more enthusiastic to pigeonhole by race than they were in the 19th century. That was the time when Arthur de Gobineau’s theories were expounded, realising their full potential by influencing Nazi philosophy in the 20th century.

19th-Century Orientalist Painting

The 19th-century artistic ambiguity often brought East and West together. Styles of dressing that would be considered cultural appropriation today were a means of immersion then. The same reaction is found with depictions of the young Jesus by JE Millais and William Holman Hunt. A frail youth with reddish white skin and gingery hair is not what was expected in the 19th century and is even less acceptable now, although there are still plenty of Jews, Arabs and Berbers with this colouring. If Christ, the Semite, could be of a light hue, why not the Prophet Muhammad as well? He was widely recorded as having reddish-white skin. Fortunately, the Orientalist artists were respectful enough of Muslim culture never to paint the Prophet.


Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World inspired Western Art is at The British Museum from 10 October to 26 January 2020. Then at The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, from 20 June to 20 October 2020