Contexte historique



The orientalist theme crosses the various pictorial movements and events of the 19th century and the early 20th century.


Until the end of the 17th century it can be said that only trade linked Orient and Occident, in particular by the intermediary of Venitian trading posts. At that time, Venice had the quasi-monopoly of trade with the Ottoman Empire. The Orient and the Occident, two distinct geographical spaces in religious and cultural terms, had often had the occasion to clash during battles, crusades, attempted invasions on the initiative of either side.
Early in the 18th century, Western interest in the Orient increased. In 1704, Antoine Galland published the first French translation of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments. In 1721, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters drew the attention of a large public, curious about innovation. This led to the rise of the Turquerie fashion, in clothing, literature, music, furniture, etc.

Visiting the Orient

During the 19th century, a real passion for the East appeared. Its luxury and mystery, its marvels had for several centuries inspired artists and writers. The novelty now was that there was a real urge on the part Europeans to visit these areas. The intellectuals' "Grand Tour" in Europe, heretofore confined to Italy and Greece for the most adventurous, became a voyage all around the Mediterranean.

Several historical events enhanced this "fashion": Bonaparte's Egypt campaign (1798-1799), Greece’s war of independence(1821-1829), the taking of Algiers by France (1830), the Crimean War (1854-1855), the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the progressive dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire through competitions and colonial ambitions, in particular between France and England.

Literature had its own orientalist period during the 19th century: Victor Hugo wrote in his Orientales that the Islamic world was "for intelligence as much as for imagination, a kind of general concern".

Orientalist artists became true explorers, sometimes occupying consular or commercial responsibilities as well. In addtion to these activities, they collected information documenting the cultures of the Middle East. They often followed the scientific expeditions of the academic orientalists. In certain cases, the artist was almost a war reporter (for example "The Massacre of Chio" by Delacroix, even though he did not actually witness it). Their investigations led them to Algiers, Cairo, Constantinople, etc...

In constant growth since the beginning of the 19th century, the orientalist style reached its apogee with the World Fairs of 1855 and 1867. As of 1870, many non-French artists joined the movement (Italians, Germans, British, Austrians, Americans, etc.).

The 20th century

Orientalist themes disappeared little by little from painting at the beginning of the 20th century, with a brief respite corresponding to the opening in Algiers of the Villa Abd-el-Tif, a kind of Algerian Medicis Villa. The Independence of Algeria in 1962 and the closing of this villa marked the end of the orientalist period, now only an heir of the previous century. The mystery of the East was by then a thing of the past, though its light and its atmosphere continue to fascinate to this day.


© 1997,2005 Lauret Hervé