Orientalist Art


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You can download fifty years of publications by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for free. Yes, for free. There are books on the art of Islamic Spain, Egypt, the Near East, etc. Check it out here.

Orientality is a biennial conference series developed by the Orientalist Museum, Doha.

The inaugural conference took place at Cambridge University in 2013. Subsequent conferences are scheduled for the National Portrait Gallery, London, 2015.

The only conference of its kind, Orientality gives international art and museum professionals an opportunity to come together and discuss the art, history, politics and future of the Orientalist art movement.

In the process it aims to develop understanding between east and west, and showcase the continued vibrancy of the Orientalist art movement in the 21st century.


Coptic Mother and Child, 1875, painting by Frederick Goodall, mid 19th century

The English artist Frederick Goodall provides a number of portraits of ordinary Egyptians in the mid to late 19th century. For more details on Goodall, click here for an earlier post.


Study of a Bedouin Girl, painting by Frederick Goodall, mid 19th century

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A Seated Scribe, 1479-80, Attributed to Gentile Bellini, Italian, 1429–1507

The painting above is located in the Gardner Art Museum in Boston. Here is the description posted on their website:

Curious visitors who lift the cover from the unassuming Seated Scribe will be richly rewarded by what they see: an intimate painting in miniature of a young member of the Ottoman court bent intently over a writing pad. Dressed in a navy velvet caftan woven with gold, the elegant youth wears bright silks at his arms and neck. The generous folds of his turban hold in place a ribbed, red taj – headgear worn in the court milieu of Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (1432–1481), who nurtured a passionate interest in portraiture and particularly in western traditions of the genre.

Striking for its gleaming tones and stunning delicacy of line, the Seated Scribe is spectacular not only visually, but also in historiographic terms. The painting’s original dimensions have been trimmed, and a later hand has taken care not only to embellish the image, but also to frame, mount, and, ultimately, historicize it. An added inscription in Persian records the image as the “work of Ibn Muezzin who was a famous painter among the Franks.” Scholars have never doubted that a European or “Frankish” artist painted the Seated Scribe. The pressing issue of late has been who, precisely? Whether the Venetian Gentile Bellini, a renowned portraitist sent to Istanbul in 1479, or Costanzo da Ferrara, a court artist at Naples who also sojourned at the Porte, the specificity of detail in the Seated Scribe leaves little doubt that the artist drew from life.

Once the debate over attribution subsides, the more intriguing issue to raise is whether one can call the work a portrait. Might western pictorial realism have been the point of the exercise? A pronounced crease just above the youth’s elbow suggests the image was initially handled as a loose-leaf, autonomous work of art before being mounted (and in this way preserved) in a sixteenth-century album. Like other western-style works Mehmed II commissioned or obtained during his sultanate, the Seated Scribe may have been used as a pedagogic tool for rising artists of the Ottoman royal workshop. A slightly later copy of the miniature (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington) certainly affirms its value for Ottoman and Persian artists as a pictorial model worthy of imitation. If the pictured youth is not a scribe but an artist, shown in the act of drawing while he himself is being drawn according to Western pictorial practices, the Seated Scribe taught by poignant example – it sits indeed at the nexus of Ottoman art and European traditions of representation.

Source: Susan Spinale, “A Seated Scribe,” in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 97.


Gérôme’s “The Slave Market,” left; Inanna in Damascus by Sundus Abdul Hadi, Iraqi artist, right

Before Edward Said revitalized the term “Orientalism” in his seminal 1978 book of the same title, the major use of the term was for a genre of Western art, centering on exotic depictions of an imagined or at least embellished beyond the real “Orient.” The Gérôme painting of “The Snake Charmer” of the paperback version perfectly captured the prejudicial element that Said rightly exposed in much of the literature and academic writing about the Middle East and Islam. Such a biased representation cannot be glossed as mere “art for art’s sake,” if indeed art is ever really only for “art’s sake.” I recently came across a painting by Sundus Abdul Hadi, an Iraqi female artist, that responds aesthetically to another famous Orientalist painting by Gérôme; these are the two images juxtaposed above. There is nothing inaccurate in either painting. Selling female slaves was a lucrative trade throughout the Islamic era and current sexcapades by wealthy Arab sheikhs are well known.

The response painting is a brilliant counter to Gérôme. Both highlight the exploitation of women as sex slaves, either in the older legal and literal sense or the modern illegal but still practiced nonsense. It is possible to look at either picture and focus on the naked body of a woman on display. This is the voyeur’s gaze, which is often the prime motive for creating as well as viewing such a work of art. But when placed side by side with the modern response painting, the very fact that the woman is still only an object for purchase overrides a one-directional voyeurism. This is not simply a scene of the imagination, but a reality that has outlived the 19th century Orientalist genre and indeed is hardly unique to a genre exposing the bodies of Oriental women. (more…)


Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac (c. 1603)

[Webshaykh’s note: Anouar Majid has written a provocative commentary on Tingis Redux about the story of Abraham, who is sacred to three competing faiths in a part of the world where much blood has been spilled. His original post can be read here. I provide below his conclusion, a call for inventing a new Abraham to go along with the old ones.]

… Like almost everything in the scriptures, the story of Abraham shows clearly that is the outcome of human storytelling, composition, editing, and revision. If we assume Arabs were influenced by Judaism and eventually broke away to establish a religion of their own, the Islamic account of Abraham begins to make sense. Ishmael needed to be reinserted into Abraham’s family as an elder child with full rights in order for Arabs to have an equal claim to the patriarch’s legacy. In this version of events, it is Ishmael who is supposed to have been sacrificed, even though the Koran doesn’t name the son chosen for this burnt offering. The choice of Ishmael over Isaac seems to have happened much later, when Muslims were taking a harder stance against Judaism, not in the early centuries of Islam. Finally, to break away with Judaism and Christianity in incontrovertible ways, Abraham was turned into the real founder of the Ka`ba in Mecca and the initiator of pilgrimage rites (a fact totally absent in earlier Jewish and Christian accounts). By rewriting the story of Abraham to bolster their new religion and bring the old man and his son Ishmael to Mecca, the Arabs could claim the ancient heritage of the Jews without having to adopt Judaism.

In the end, we are not the children of old Abraham. As with all deities and mythical figures, our ancestors invented a man and idolized him to give themselves a special status among nations. But if Abraham cannot gather Jews, Christians, and Muslims around a common theology, what is to prevent us from inventing yet another Abraham, one who represents our contemporary visions and aspirations, not the antiquated social mores of ancient Middle Easterners? After all, later generations of the people who invented Abraham had no qualms tinkering with their scriptures to re-create an ancestor better fitted for their times.

The name Jacques Cazotte may not ring many bells these days. After all, he died in 1792, a victim of the success of the French Revolution, but probably not because he was into the Illuminati… But fans of Oriental tales imitating the famous Arabian Nights may recognize his name. In 1742 he published Mille et une fadaises, Contes a dormir debout (The Thousand and One Follies, Tales to Sleep Upright), which was later translated into English. The English edition published in the year of his death is available in that magical resource for book lovers: archive.org. There are several volumes, but I have chosen an excerpt about Habib the knight from volume 3. Enjoy.

to be continued (just like the 1001 Nights…)


Yes, a treaty and not a Humean treatise, although Hume’s treatise on Religion no doubt had an influence on the creators of the text. The third treaty established by the young United States, recently liberated from British rule, with the nations of the “Barbary Coast” was with the Bey of Algiers in 1797. Like the earlier two treaties, the focus was on maritime trade in the Mediterranean and the problem of Barbary “pirates” as well as neutrality of the Barbary states when the U.S. was battling other “Christian” powers. Our Founding Fathers (for surely those members of Congress in 1797 were as close to being Founding Fathers as Sarah Palin’s contorted dubbing of John Quincy Adams, who had just turned 20 and had yet to enter politics) were obviously not working hard to free slaves (as these treaties will bear out), but they did stress a point that many rightwing pundits conveniently gloss over: the United States was not created as a “Christian nation.”

As you read the treaty below, in celebration of the 4th of July, note article 11 in particular. It turns out that the translation provided to Congress by Joseph Barlow, is not very accurate and the original Arabic version did not contain what we find in Article 11. But in fact, Congress never knew that and only saw the version printed here; this was accepted unanimously and then acknowledged as well by President John Adams at the time. So it was certainly not the contention of the Dey of Algiers that the U.S. was not a Christian nation, but an idea that resonated well with the young Congress.

Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Tripoli November 4, 1796 (3 Ramada I, A. H. 1211), and at Algiers January 3, 1797 (4 Rajab, A. H. 1211). Original in Arabic. Submitted to the Senate May 29, 1797. (Message of May 26, 1797.) Resolution of advice and consent June 7, 1797. Ratified by the United States June 10, 1797. As to the ratification generally, see the notes. Proclaimed Jane 10, 1797.

[Translation]
Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary.

ARTICLE 1.
There is a firm and perpetual Peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, made by the free consent of both parties, and guaranteed by the most potent Dey & regency of Algiers.

ARTICLE 2.
If any goods belonging to any nation with which either of the parties is at war shall be loaded on board of vessels belonging to the other party they shall pass free, and no attempt shall be made to take or detain them.

ARTICLE 3.
If any citizens, subjects or effects belonging to either party shall be found on board a prize vessel taken from an enemy by the other party, such citizens or subjects shall be set at liberty, and the effects restored to the owners. (more…)

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