Australian Fine Artist

The premise of this essay is to review Orientalism and the concept of ‘other’ by examining three specific paintings completed during the 19th century, in order to distinguish political from artistic, or commercial, intent. In order to discuss the subject, the definition of Orientalism needs to be considered; according to the Oxford Dictionary the broad definition of Orientalism is a method of representing Asian cultures and peoples in a stereotypical manner distorted by colonial attitudes and interpretation (Orientalism 2015). Edward Said describes Orientalism as a vision of reality distorted by the difference between the familiar (the West) and the ‘other’ (the unfamiliar East) (Said 1978). The concept of ‘other’ created a division between the West, which was perceived as developed and civilized, in contrast to the East, which was seen as as inferior or degraded (Shahinaj 2015). Orientalism, colonialism, the spread of ‘empire’, and the concept of ‘other’, are contemporaneous with the European Age of Enlightenment, scientific and archaeological discoveries, spread of literature, and the Grand Tour (Said 1978). This essay by analysing works by Ingres (1780-1867), Gérome (1824-1904), and Delacroix (1798-1863), in regard to their representation of the East regarding women in particular will demonstrate their Eurocentric depiction of ‘other’, and Orientalism. Although aesthetically attractive, these paintings reflected an attitude of ‘other’ by altering the subjects to create a distorted or Euro centrically derived reality that misrepresented the East as an amoral or undeveloped culture.

At the end of the 18th century, France colonised countries in North Africa such as Egypt that they saw as strategically important. France and Britain had trade and political interests in the East that they wanted to protect by financially supporting regimes under colonial rule (Hosford, et al. 2010). With increased percentages of cities built and under colonial control, artists travelled outside of Europe, seeking subjects to broaden their repertoires, and attract commissions, because of the growing interest in the exotic East (Pearson 1999). European artists achieved this by capitalizing on the study of ancient philosophy and literature, archaeological exploration, and sometimes exploitation of discovered ancient sites. Displaying Orientalist art and literature was a method of showing off the sophistication of those who had recently toured the East (Dickinson 2002). The subjects of these acquired artworks often supported the Eurocentric attitude of superiority and strategy of Colonial incursion.

Ingres-the turkish bath

Figure 1. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. The Turkish Bath, 1863. Oil on Canvas on Wood, 108cm Diameter. Louvre, Paris. Reproduced from The Louvre, (accessed July 30, 2015).

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres painted interpretations of the exotic, especially in regard to women in Turkish baths (hammans). In consideration, it is interesting that he never saw the interior scenes portrayed in work such as The Turkish Bath (1863). The inspiration came from the records and letters of Lady Mary Montagu (1689-1762) (Kuehn 2011), and despite her first hand information the artist altered details, portraying women not only as inaccurate sexualised facsimiles, but also as a subtle representation of male voyeurism (Baddeley 1984). Originally commissioned by Prince Napoleon (1822-1891) who was infamous for his womanizing and excessive drinking, The Turkish Bath was returned to the artist as his wife Maria Clotilde (1843-1911) refused to hang it in her rooms (Hall 2000, 50-51). Ingres inaccurately depicted the women by westernising them with European looks, and by placing them in erotic poses, misrepresented Eastern culture, and sexually objectified women in general. Western women, if kept in harems during this period were captives, there to produce children, and as sexual slaves, and servants, and as a male, Ingres would not have had access to them. This would explain Maria Clotilde’s insistence on having it removed, as her character didn’t reflect the dichotomy between public and private principles in society.

Apart from its sexual and voyeuristic intimations, or implied imperialist complaisance of Eastern domination, the painting attests to Ingre’s technical abilities. The circular mount applied after the work was cut down from the original rectangular shape, gives the impression of looking through a hole in the wall to a secret domain. Added dimension has been created with the use of warmer skin tones on the reworked Valpinçon Bather (1808), which is surrounded by a tangled pattern of bodies intimating sensuality pushed to the extreme (Huguenaud 2012). The objectifying of women, by his use of strong lines to emphasize the mass of naked entangled bodies in various erotic poses, however, has been described as demeaning to women by feminist scholars (Anon 2015). As this painting was originally for private rooms, the subject is not an obvious political message. It is an erotic representation by the artist, who has overlooked the true appearance of Middle Eastern women for a Eurocentric interpretation.


Figure 2. JeanLéon Gérome. Femmes Au Bain. 1898. Oil on Canvas, 74x94cm. American Art Association, New York. Reproduced from, (accessed August 6, 2015).

Jean-Léon Gérome was a pupil of Paul Delaroche (1979-1856), and admired for his meticulous research of his subjects. Gérome although considered a master of Oriental life, however, often mixed the settings and objects from one Eastern culture into another (Keim 1912). In Femmes Au Bain. 1898, Gerome separates himself from the mostly fantasized view of Ingres in The Turkish Bath by using his understanding of the female figure to create a simpler composition reflecting the more likely social interaction of the women. The poses, rather than erotic, reveal a relaxed atmosphere where the light plays on the skin tones of the women and colours are soft, and balanced but still rich (Cole 2014). Femmes Au Bain is not however an accurate depiction, as the women are not Middle Eastern in appearance. Gerome created an imagined scene, omitting portraying the ritual and social meaning of the baths (hamman) for women in the East (Staats 1994). The figures have been artificially composed to create a fabricated exotic scene that would sell to European clients, or be accepted by galleries. Whilst not sexually objectifying women to the same degree as Ingre’s The Turkish Bath, the painting still misrepresents the role of the hammam in Eastern culture by omitting its social significance.

women of algiers delacroix

Figure 3. Eugéne Delacroix. Women of Algiers in their Apartments. 1834. Oil on Canvas, 180x229cm. Musee du Louvre, Paris. Reproduced from,
(accessed August 20, 2015).

Eugéne Delacroix was a painter of the Romanticist and Orientalist genres exemplified by his sentimental imagery of heroism and action. Well educated with early training under Guérin (1774-1833), and later at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1816), he was inspired by the work of Rubens (1577-1640) and Gericault (1791-1824). Unlike Ingres, Delacroix travelled, beginning in 1832, drawing and making notes in sketchbooks, which gave his paintings a sense of accuracy, especially in regard to portraying oriental fabrics, architecture, and people (Denny 1983). However, because Muslim women were required to remain covered, many observations proved to be difficult for such paintings as Women of Algiers in Their Apartments (1834), as most were not willing to pose.

Having said that, during his first trip to the Orient in 1832 Delacroix was invited to enter the private women’s quarters of a local man, which was normally not allowed for anyone other than the owner. This gave him a unique advantage over Ingres and Gérome who were painting from written descriptions or their imagination of reality. Delacroix was permitted to stay long enough to create several watercolours and sketches in preparation for a final painting (Women 2015). In contrast to other paintings of this theme, the women are clothed and are of more eastern appearance, indicating that Delacroix has taken the time to more accurately depict the clothing and surrounds of the room, although some of the jewellery would only have been worn for a special event (Bouabdellah-Dorbani 2015). This painting exposes the differences in artists’ understanding and representation of the East to the West, whilst still presenting its own inaccuracies. The Arabic writing on the wall means nothing, and the possibly drugged state of the women due to their restricted lives is transformed by tidying up the women to the point of clean fingernails, for a more receptive scene for European viewers (Porterfield 1998, 135). This indicates how Delacroix’s real life knowledge of the East was stifled or completely altered to suit the Eurocentric tastes of collectors of his art, and why paintings of this genre can not be taken at face value for their depiction of the East.

This essay has argued that artists, to suit the fascination of their Eurocentric clientele for the exotic, applied a concept of ‘other’ by misrepresenting or deleting the cultural identity of the East to suit the tastes of the West. The familiar has been used to filter a true representation of social behaviour and people in Asia and the Middle East. Ingres eroticised the Turkish bath and women, Gérome, although well researched, replaced Asian women in favour of a Westernised version, and Delacroix also altered details to suit the Eurocentric tastes of collectors and galleries. Orientalism and it’s skewed view of the East, although not a definitive movement, remained a way of representing Eastern cultures well into the 20th century in philosophy, books, movies, and art. The concept of ‘other’ was also an excuse to dismiss domination and westernising the inaccurately perceived inferior or backward cultural characteristics in countries that have been identified with the word Orientalism. The East, like the West, had its more or less civilized aspects and how each was displayed depended on the agenda of the artist or the final consumer. Based on the arguments in this essay, it is clear that Orientalism as demonstrated in the paintings discussed, has more to do with the West than it does the East, and how the West sees itself compared to the rest of the world.

Copyright 2015 Janice Mills
Reference List:

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Illustration list:

Figure 1. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. The Turkish Bath, 1863. Oil on Canvas on Wood, 108cm Diameter. Louvre, Paris. Reproduced from The Louvre, (accessed July 30, 2015).

Figure 2. JeanLéon Gérome. Femmes Au Bain. 1898. Oil on Canvas, 74x94cm. American Art Association, New York. Reproduced from, (accessed August 6, 2015).

Figure 3. Eugéne Delacroix. Women of Algiers in their Apartments. 1834. Oil on Canvas, 180x229cm. Musee du Louvre, Paris. Reproduced from,
(accessed August 20, 2015).

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