On the relations between travel and orientalist painting, two books by Lynne Thornton provide useful information:
- "The Orientalists, Painter-travellers", ACR éditions, 1983 (in english)
- "Du Maroc aux Indes, voyage en Orient", ACR éditions, 1998 (in french)
In the late 18th century and the early 19th century, more and more artists, especially from France and England, travelled through the East, where the colonial or commercial presence of their country was essential. For other countries, without these particular relations, the East still seemed very far. These artists often travelled as part of a scientific, military, commercial or diplomatic expedition.
The travelling conditions at the time were difficult, even perilous; this, of course, did nothing but excite the curiosity of these artists. The case of Eugene Flandin can be mentioned: he was attached to a diplomatic mission in Persia; fours years later, he found himself practically abandoned by his employer. During this time, he drew, travelled, did some cartography, set up relations with the locals; with the death of the Shah, however, he had too flee, since his security was no longer assured. A good amount of adventurousness and great adaptability were thus required for such travel. The Western traveller was certainly not accustomed to sleeping in a caravanserai with Spartan comfort, with camels and camel drivers, and even less sleeping under the stars in the desert. To that were added the exotic risks of disease, but also of armed robbery. From the Balkans on, the roads were no longer safe.
As of 1840, conditions started improving, and an embryonic form of organized tourism became available. The caravanserais were replaced by hotels, and the caravans were organized from Europe.
Orientalist painting can never be dissociated from travelling: a real orientalist painter is a painter who travels. In fact, many orientalists painters travelled no farther than their studio. Such was the case of Antoine-Jean Gros, famous for his "Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-stricken of Jaffa". Some painters took their inspiration from other people’s travelogues. They were also inspired by artifacts brought back by these travellers, and even by early photographs. For many Spanish painters, Andalusia and its vestiges of Nazarie civilization were an inexhaustible and sufficient source of inspiration.
But most orientalist painters actually travelled in the East. For some, only one stay would be enough to mark and inspire them in their entire artistic production. Thus Delacroix, who went on a single journey to Morocco and Algiers in 1832, accompanying the Count of Mornay, special correspondent of Louis-Philippe to Sultan Moulay Abd-el-Rahman. He brought back booklets of sketches and watercolours which he would exploit over a long period of time. Similarly, Decamps and Chassériau made only one trip, the first in 1827 from Greece to Asia Minor, the second in 1846 to Constantine -- invited by Caliph Ali Ben Ahmed -- then to Algiers.
Many orientalists painters became quickly addicted to travelling. They accumulated numerous stays, undertaking veritable expeditions. Some cities became very accessible for these artists: Cairo had studio facilities, trips were easily organized starting out from Algiers, Alexandria or Constantinople. The artist then did sketches or watercolours (English and Italian painters were masters of this technique) during the expedition, leaving the final stages to be done on his return home. Some more academic painters used the very new technique of photography in place of traditional sketches (Horace Vernet did daguerreotypes as early as 1839). The artists collected local artifacts and costumes which they would later use to polish up details of their studio work.
Work from life posed some problems at the beginning of the 19th century. Indeed, although it was not difficult to draw landscapes, drawing characters was more problematic. Since Islam prohibits the representation of humans, making sketches of a Moslem without permission could be dangerous. The artists often sketched covertly. Some painters, Delacroix as well as others, used Jewish models, taking advantage of the significant Jewish population in the Maghreb.
One can quote the extrem case of Gustave Guillaumet which went as far as sharing the life of the poor populations of the desert during several years in order to as well as possible restore the scenes of their life. Other artists settle definitively in the East, especially with the turning of the 20th century : It is the case of Jacques Majorelle. Etienne Dinet goes until converting with Islam.