Lazy Nerd Explainer: Orientalism in Art History

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Orientalism in Art History

Exploring Orientalism in the History of Art

Defining Orientalism

Orientalism encompasses the Western representation of Eastern cultures, particularly the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa, by academics, artists, and authors. It is often characterized by romanticized, exotic, and stereotypical portrayals of these cultures.

History of Orientalism

Emerging in the 19th century, during an era of high colonialism, Orientalism was a means for Western powers to comprehend and control these regions through their own reference points. Delineating between themselves and Others as if their way was good, proper, enlightened and the ways of Others were mysterious, dangerous, intriguing but backward. As time progressed, the concept evolved to include not just the artistic and scholarly depictions of the East, but also the underlying attitudes and beliefs shaping these portrayals.

Edward Said and Orientalism in Art

The term Orientalism gained prominence in the academic world after the publication of Edward Said's groundbreaking book, "Orientalism," in 1978. Said argued that Orientalism was not just an innocent fascination but a form of cultural imperialism that perpetuated stereotypes and promoted the idea of Western superiority. These issues still resonate in today's world. Even though we understand the acceptable boundaries of appreciation vs appropriation better than ever, cultural appropriation is quite literally a living, breathing issue to this day. With all the complexity entailed in being human, and being dehumanised.

Orientalism: A Veil of Denial

Distorting the Eastern Reality

One of the most damaging aspects of Orientalism is the way it distorts the reality of the Eastern world. By focusing on an idealized and romanticized version of the East, Westerners have created a false image that denies the true complexity and diversity of Eastern cultures. This denial not only misrepresents the East but also reinforces a sense of superiority in the West, further entrenching the divide between the two worlds.

Perpetuation of Stereotypes

Orientalism perpetuates several stereotypes about non-Western civilizations' culture, practices, and society. These stereotypes include the portrayal of the East as exotic, mystical, and sensual, as well as the portrayal of the East as broadly inferior to the West.

Orientalism also perpetuates stereotypes about the status of women in non-Western societies, portraying them as oppressed and in need of Western intervention. It's also race based and often delivered as a backhanded compliment. Like Orientalists stereotypes about East Asian Americans, for example, who were long portrayed as nerds, immature, childlike, and infantile looking. Orientalism is also associated with the stereotype of the "noble savage," which feeds into the wrong-headed ideas of Primitivism, which was also used to justify colonialism and white supremacy, just like Orientalism.

Reinforcing Power Structures

Orientalism and imperialism are closely related. Orientalism is the practice of portraying the East as exotic, mystical, and inferior to the West, while imperialism is the practice of maintaining or extending power, particularly through expansionism, employing hard power (economic and military power), but also soft power (cultural and diplomatic power), establishing or maintaining a hegemony and a more or less formal empire.

Cultural imperialism refers to the cultural dimensions of imperialism. It describes practices in which a country engages culture (language, tradition, and ritual, politics, economics) to create and maintain unequal social and economic relationships among countries.

Cultural imperialism can refer to either the forced acculturation of a subject population or to the voluntary embracing of a foreign culture by individuals who are not part of the dominant culture. In other words, as Edward Said explains, imperialism is a broader concept that includes cultural imperialism as one of its dimensions.

Orientalism was used to justify imperialism by portraying non-Western societies as inferior and in need of Western intervention. Edward Said argued in his book "Culture and Imperialism" that literature has "the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging", which might contradict the colonization of a people. Therefore, Orientalism was used to control distant lands and peoples. Overall, Orientalism and imperialism are closely related, with Orientalism being used to justify and perpetuate imperialism.

Colonial Perspectives of the Eastern World

In the colonial era, Orientalism functioned as a tool for Western powers to justify their dominance over Eastern societies. By presenting the East as exotic, enigmatic, and ultimately inferior, Westerners could rationalize their imperialistic pursuits. This viewpoint allowed them to perceive themselves as saviors, delivering civilization and enlightenment to the so-called "backward" Eastern realm.

Orientalism reinforced and perpetuated colonial perspectives of the Eastern world through various means, including art, literature, and cinema. And the 'golden age' of Orientalism brought forth an abundance of idealized images of the East. These works often emphasized the exotic and sensual facets of Eastern cultures, presenting them as alluringly different from the West. This romanticized view of the Eastern world only served to reinforce stereotypes and increase the distance between the East and West, perpetuating a sense of "otherness."

Here are some specific examples:

  1. Literature: Rudyard Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden" (1899) exemplifies the colonial mindset, portraying the East as uncivilized and in need of Western intervention to "civilize" the native peoples.
  2. Cinema: Films like "The Sheik" (1921) and "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) perpetuated Orientalist stereotypes, presenting the East as a place of exoticism, danger, and sensuality, while also reinforcing the notion of the heroic Westerner who brings order and civilization to the region.
  3. News coverage: Western media still portrays the East, particularly the Middle East, as a region of conflict, terrorism, and religious extremism, reinforcing negative stereotypes and justifying Western intervention.

These examples demonstrate how Orientalism has been used to create a binary worldview that divides the "East" and "West," with the West seen as superior, rational, and civilized, while the East is portrayed as backward, exotic, and despotic. This perspective has served to justify colonial projects and continues to influence Western perceptions of the Eastern world.

A Fanciful Eastern Vision

Orientalism in European Art and Literature of the 19th Century

Orientalism in Art

Orientalism peaked during a fever pitch of colonial expansion — capturing the imagination best during the Romantic era. Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eugène Delacroix, and Frederic Leighton were leading luminaries of the Orientalist movement in 19th-century academic art. They shaped Orientalist art by depicting imagined Orientalist scenes and carefully painting what they observed. Gérôme, in particular, is known for his sensual, gaudy, and sexually explicit style.

Common themes in their work include exoticism, eroticism, and mysticism through artistic symbolism. They drew inspiration from Eastern cultures, including Indian, Byzantine, and Greco-Roman art. They also depicted themes such as ascetics, slaves, and captives, often with a lack of realism and dynamism to heighten the emotional impact of their work.

And here are a few specific, fanciful and distorted depictions of Orientalism in art history:

  1. Eugène Delacroix's "Women of Algiers in their Apartment" (1834): This painting depicts Algerian women in a harem, presenting them as passive and sensual objects of desire. The work perpetuates the stereotype of Eastern women as submissive and exotic.
  2. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's "The Turkish Bath" (1862): This painting shows a group of nude women in a Turkish bath, emphasizing their sensuality and exoticism. The work reinforces the notion of the East as a place of hedonism and indulgence.
  3. Jean-Léon Gérôme's "Snake Charmer" (1879): This European Orientalist painting depicts a young naked boy entertaining a group of much older men with a snake charming performance. Art expert Linda Nochlin believes Gérôme paints the Eastern world as if it's stuck in time, never changing. And depicting the boy without clothes sexualises him while also adding to the wrong idea that Eastern cultures are "backward." Building into the frame visual ideas that depict Eastern cultures as exotic, mysterious, and primitive, reinforcing Western superiority.

Orientalism in Literature

Writers such as Pierre Loti, Gustave Flaubert, and Edward FitzGerald also contributed to the Orientalist oeuvre. Their works often featured Eastern settings and characters, casting them in exotic and mysterious roles.

FitzGerald's translation of the Persian Rubaiyat was particularly influential in shaping the Western perception of the East. Flaubert's Salammbô, a novel set in ancient Carthage, is also a notable work of Orientalist literature. Loti's works, including Aziyadé and Les Désenchantées, were also influential in shaping the Western perception of the East.

Overall, their works contributed to the Western world's fascination with the East and helped shape the Orientalist movement in literature. These literary portrayals furthered the notion of the East as a place of fantasy and escape, divorced from reality.

Poetic license and artistic license lent emotional weight to the racist ideas behind exoticism, which came to be a widely used colonial byword for Othering people... in the nicest way possible, apparently. Making exotic a highly controversial word in itself, considering "there are no foreign lands, it is the traveller who is foreign" — Robert Louis Stevenson.

Exotic is a word most often used to frame the everyday lives of people 'not like us' as foreign, mysterious, curios... instead of recognising you are the one out of place when you travel. An idea which scared a lot of colonialists who believed the world was their oyster... and that their way was the right way. Righteously, in fact. Which is the same impulse that unsettles many a traveller today. Making them react in jagged ways to regain control over an environment that is not their home. Where they are a guest. But I digress...

The fact remains, Orientalist art was mostly used to reinforce a binary worldview that divided the "East" and "West," perpetuating the notion of Western superiority and rationality over the "undeveloped" and "primitive" East. This perspective supported colonial ambitions and justified European domination over Eastern regions.

Japonisme and Its Influence on Western Art

Japonisme, a French term referring to the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design on Western European artists in the 19th century, is significant in the context of Orientalism as it represents a specific fascination with Japanese culture and aesthetics. Japonisme built upon the Orientalist influences that were pervasive in European Neoclassical and Romantic art. The introduction of Japanese art and design to Europe brought about revolutions in composition, palette, and perspectival space, influencing artists such as Monet, Van Gogh, and Whistler.

While Japonisme shares similarities with Orientalism, such as the exoticization of Eastern cultures and the reinforcement of Western superiority, it also differs in some aspects. Japanese art was appreciated for its unique qualities and was often assimilated as an organic expression of Western artistic ideals. Japonisme's impact on modern art, particularly the emphasis on flat planes and the flattening effect reminiscent of woodblock prints, became central to modernist painting.

However, like Orientalism, Japonisme has been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes and misrepresentations of Japanese culture, which supported the colonial ambitions of Western powers. Contemporary artists and scholars continue to examine the nuances and complexities of Japonisme and its relationship with Orientalism.

Orientalism in American Art of the Early 20th Century

While Orientalism was more prevalent in European art during the 19th century, its influence extended to American art as well, with artists exploring Eastern cultures and incorporating exotic elements into their works. Including James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, who both incorporated elements of Eastern cultures into their paintings. These artists often used Orientalist themes to add exoticism and intrigue to their works.

In the 20th century, the art world began to repackage Orientalism, emphasizing cross-cultural artistic influence without fully addressing its colonialist contexts. This approach often depicted Orientalism as a benign mode of aesthetics rather than an ideological justification for European colonialist violence and subjugation.

Contemporary artists, particularly those from Eastern cultures, have been addressing and challenging Orientalism in their works, offering alternative narratives and perspectives that counter the Eurocentric view. These artists aim to create a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of Eastern cultures, acknowledging the complex historical and political implications of Orientalism.

Overall, the socio-historical impacts of Orientalism in American art of the 20th century can be seen in the continued exploration of Eastern themes, the reinterpretation of Orientalist tropes, and the ongoing debate surrounding the colonialist contexts and implications of Orientalism in art.

Orientalism in Cinema

Orientalism has been used in cinema in various ways, often perpetuating stereotypes and exoticizing Eastern cultures. In American films, particularly action movies, Orientalism has been employed to depict Middle Eastern characters as terrorists, reinforcing negative stereotypes and promoting the "us versus them" mentality. Examples of such films include "American Sniper" and the "Indiana Jones" series.

In science fiction and futuristic films, Orientalism has influenced the visual representation of dystopian cities, often incorporating Asian-inflected elements, as seen in movies like "Blade Runner". This approach reflects the Western fascination with Eastern cultures and their perceived "otherness."Colonial cinema also incorporated Orientalist themes, presenting distorted and voiceless representations of native characters within the predefined boundaries of the colonial imaginary. This approach reinforced the notion of Western superiority and justified colonialist violence and subjugation.

Contemporary artists and filmmakers have begun to challenge and reinterpret Orientalism in cinema, offering alternative narratives and perspectives that counter the Eurocentric view. This shift aims to create a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of Eastern cultures and address the complex historical and political implications of Orientalism in cinema.

Critiques of Orientalism Stereotypes

Stereotypes in Orientalism

One of the significant critiques of Orientalism is the reinforcement of stereotypes. These depictions often present a one-dimensional and exoticized view of Eastern cultures, which can perpetuate misunderstandings and misrepresentations.

  • Orientalism frequently portrays Eastern cultures as exotic, mystical, and sensual. This reduces diverse cultures to a set of stereotypes.
  • People from the East are depicted as effeminate, submissive, or barbaric. This promotes stereotypes about gender roles.
  • Orientalist art often shows Eastern people wearing elaborate, impractical costumes. This exaggerates cultural differences.
  • Stories set in the East rely on tropes like snake charmers, magic carpets, and harems. This presents an exaggerated and imaginary version of Eastern cultures.

Cultural Appropriation

Another critique of Orientalism is the issue of cultural appropriation. The use of elements from Eastern cultures in Western art has been criticized for taking these elements out of context and presenting them in a way that disregards their cultural significance.

  • Motifs like calligraphy or architectural details are extracted from their original cultural context.
  • Religious symbols like the Buddha or Hindu gods are used decoratively, not respectfully.
  • Clothing and costumes are worn without regard for their spiritual or social meaning.
  • Cultural practices like yoga or martial arts are modified to suit Western tastes, not Eastern traditions.


Orientalism has also been criticized for promoting ethnocentrism, which is the belief in the inherent superiority of one's own culture. By presenting Eastern cultures as exotic and mysterious, Orientalism can inadvertently reinforce the idea that Western culture is the "norm" and others are deviations from that norm.

  • The West is portrayed as rational, modern, and progressive. The East is portrayed as backward, primitive, and undeveloped.
  • Western perspectives and values are assumed to be universal, while Eastern perspectives are seen as foreign.
  • The West is shown as dominant; the East is shown as passive. This justifies imperialism and colonialism.
  • The West gains knowledge about the East; the East remains mysterious and in need of Western study.

Reinterpreting Orientalism in Contemporary Art

In recent years, artists from Eastern cultures have started to reinterpret Orientalism, using it as a platform to challenge stereotypes and reclaim their cultural heritage. These artists often incorporate Orientalist themes into their work but do so in a way that critiques the Eurocentric perspective and promotes cultural understanding.

  • Artists subvert Orientalist images to highlight their reductive nature.
  • Contemporary works draw on Eastern spiritual ideas and iconography to empower Eastern cultures.
  • The exotified "Eastern other" is replaced with relatable, humanized depictions of Eastern people.
  • Artists reclaim their own narratives rather than relying on Western interpretations.
  • Intersectional identities in the East are explored through art, disrupting Orientalist binaries.


Orientalism has been a significant aspect of the history of art, influencing numerous artists and styles. While it has contributed to the perpetuation of stereotypes and cultural appropriation, it has also inspired contemporary artists to challenge these notions and promote cultural exchange through many (many) teachable moments. As we continue to explore the world of art history, it's crucial to recognize the impact of Orientalism and strive for a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of Eastern cultures.

Frequently Asked Questions

Orientalism in art evolved throughout history, beginning with its roots in Renaissance art and gaining widespread popularity in the 19th century, particularly in Western Europe 1. Orientalism refers to the imitation or depiction of aspects of the Eastern world by Western artists, writers, and designers 2. The movement covered a range of subjects and genres, from grand historical and biblical paintings to nudes and domestic interiors 3.

During the 19th century, Orientalist art was influenced by European colonial activity, which allowed soldiers, traders, and artists greater access to the places and peoples of the Eastern regions 4. Orientalist paintings often depicted exotic landscapes, harems, bazaars, and ornate domestic interiors, creating a romanticized and stereotypical image of the Middle East and North Africa 5. These images blurred the line between fantasy and reality, reinforcing a binary worldview that divided the "East" and "West" 5.

As time progressed, Orientalism extended to other regions, such as India, China, and Japan, influencing artists and art collectors alike 5. Despite its controversial nature, Orientalism has left a lasting impact on art history and continues to be a subject of study and debate 4.

Orientalism in art history influenced Western perceptions of the East by presenting a romanticized, exotic, and often stereotypical image of Eastern cultures, landscapes, and people 12. Orientalist paintings depicted scenes such as harems, bazaars, and ornate domestic interiors, which contributed to the creation of powerful stereotypes that crossed cultural and national boundaries 2. These images often portrayed the East as undeveloped, primitive, and ruled by tyrannical despots, reinforcing a binary worldview that divided the "East" and "West" 2.

The Orientalist art movement was inherently political and tied to the imperialist societies that produced it, with the presumption of Western superiority through clichéd and romanticized imagery leading to inaccurate and distorted representations of Eastern cultures 3. As a result, Western perceptions of the East were shaped by these artistic depictions, which perpetuated misconceptions and stereotypes that continue to influence attitudes and assumptions about the East even today 2.

The perception of Orientalism has changed over time, shifting from an academic enterprise focused on studying the ancient East through languages, culture, and texts to a concept associated with imperial domination, cultural stereotypes, and the construction of the "Other" 1. Edward Said's influential book "Orientalism" (1978) played a significant role in this change, critiquing the way Western scholars, artists, and writers depicted the East and arguing that Orientalism was a style of thought based on an ontological and epistemological distinction between the East and the West 23.

Said's work sparked debates and discussions about the biases and assumptions embedded in Orientalist representations, leading to a reevaluation of the concept and its implications3. Today, Orientalism is often seen as a problematic and controversial aspect of art history and cultural studies, with scholars examining the ways it has perpetuated negative perceptions and stereotypes of Eastern cultures 4. Despite these critiques, elements of Orientalism persist in various forms, highlighting the need for continued examination and understanding of its historical and contemporary influences 3.

Contemporary artists, particularly those from Eastern cultures, are addressing Orientalism by reinterpreting it and challenging the Eurocentric perspective. These artists incorporate Orientalist themes in their work to critique stereotypes, reclaim their cultural heritage, and promote cultural understanding. For example, some contemporary artists from West Asia and North Africa use their art to subvert traditional Orientalist tropes and present alternative narratives that challenge the exoticized and passive representations of their cultures 2.

Additionally, contemporary art exhibitions and museums are increasingly engaging with the colonialist contexts of Orientalism, highlighting the ideological justifications for European colonialist violence and subjugation 3. By presenting Orientalist art alongside contemporary works from the regions it depicts, curators aim to foster dialogue and understanding between cultures, while acknowledging the complex historical and political implications of Orientalism 3. This approach encourages a more nuanced and critical examination of Orientalist art and its impact on Western perceptions of the East 3.

What is the significance of Japonisme in the context of Orientalism?

Japonisme is significant in the context of Orientalism as it demonstrates the influence of Japanese art and design on Western artists during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement played a crucial role in shaping various art styles, such as Impressionism and Art Nouveau.