Lazy Nerd Explainer: Orientalism in Art History

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Orientalism in Art History

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Exploring Orientalism in the History of Art

Hey there! Have you ever come across the term "Orientalism" and wondered what it means? This article is all about exploring Orientalism in the history of art. We'll look into its definition, origins, impact, and how it has been reinterpreted over time. So, let's dive in!

Defining Orientalism

Orientalism refers to the depiction of Eastern cultures, particularly Middle Eastern, East Asian, and South Asian cultures, in Western art, literature, and scholarship. It is often characterized by romanticized, exotic, and stereotypical portrayals of these cultures.

History of Orientalism

The roots of Orientalism can be traced back to the curiosity and fascination of Western scholars and artists with Eastern cultures during the ages of colonialism and imperialism, when European powers began expanding their territories far and wide across the globe, but most easily and accessibly to the East. Trading and plundering their way along the Silk Roads, into Africa and continuing on all the way to Japan and back again. 

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 in European Art 19th Century

Orientalism peaked at the high-point of colonial expansion — capturing the imagination best during the Romantic era. Artists like Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme were intoxicated by the exoticism of the East, often depicting scenes from the Middle East and North Africa in their works. Must mention exotic is a controversial word in itself, considering "there are no foreign lands, it's the traveller who's foreign" — Robert Louis Stevenson. Exotic is a word most often used to Other people. Make their everyday foreign, instead of recognising you are the one out of place... which scares a lot of people, and makes them react in jagged ways to regain control over an environment that is not their home. Where they are a guest. But we 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" East2. This perspective supported colonial ambitions and justified European domination over Eastern regions2

Orientalism in American Art 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 works1. 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 contexts2. This approach often depicted Orientalism as a benign mode of aesthetics rather than an ideological justification for European colonialist violence and subjugation2.

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 view3. These artists aim to create a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of Eastern cultures, acknowledging the complex historical and political implications of Orientalism4.

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 art52.

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 aesthetics1. Japonisme built upon the Orientalist influences that were pervasive in European Neoclassical and Romantic art1. The introduction of Japanese art and design to Europe brought about revolutions in composition, palette, and perspectival space, influencing artists such as MonetVan Gogh, and Whistler2.

While Japonisme shares similarities with Orientalism, such as the exoticization of Eastern cultures and the reinforcement of Western superiority, it also differs in some aspects3. Japanese art was appreciated for its unique qualities and was often assimilated as an organic expression of Western artistic ideals1. Japonisme's impact on modern art, particularly the emphasis on flat planes and the flattening effect reminiscent of woodblock prints, became central to modernist painting1.

However, like Orientalism, Japonisme has been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes and misrepresentations of Japanese culture, which supported the colonial ambitions of Western powers2. Contemporary artists and scholars continue to examine the nuances and complexities of Japonisme and its relationship with Orientalism2.

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" mentality1. Examples of such films include "American Sniper" and the "Indiana Jones" series12.

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"3. 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 imaginary4. This approach reinforced the notion of Western superiority and justified colonialist violence and subjugation5.

Contemporary artists and filmmakers have begun to challenge and reinterpret Orientalism in cinema, offering alternative narratives and perspectives that counter the Eurocentric view4. 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 cinema5.

Critiques of Orientalism Stereotypes

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.

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.


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.

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.


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. As we continue to explore the world of art, it's crucial to recognize the impact of Orientalism and strive for a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of Eastern cultures.



How did Orientalism in art evolve throughout history?

Orientalism in art evolved throughout history, beginning with its roots in Renaissance art and gaining widespread popularity in the 19th century, particularly in Western Europe1. Orientalism refers to the imitation or depiction of aspects of the Eastern world by Western artists, writers, and designers2. The movement covered a range of subjects and genres, from grand historical and biblical paintings to nudes and domestic interiors3.

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 regions4. Orientalist paintings often depicted exotic landscapes, harems, bazaars, and ornate domestic interiors, creating a romanticized and stereotypical image of the Middle East and North Africa5. 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 IndiaChina, and Japan, influencing artists and art collectors alike5. Despite its controversial nature, Orientalism has left a lasting impact on art history and continues to be a subject of study and debate4.

What are the main issues with Orientalism in art?

Orientalism in art history influenced Western perceptions of the East by presenting a romanticized, exotic, and often stereotypical image of Eastern cultures, landscapes, and people12. 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 boundaries2. 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 cultures3. 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 today2.

How has the perception of Orientalism changed over time?

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"1Edward 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 West23.

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 cultures4. Despite these critiques, elements of Orientalism persist in various forms, highlighting the need for continued examination and understanding of its historical and contemporary influences3.

How are contemporary artists addressing Orientalism?

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 cultures2.

Additionally, contemporary art exhibitions and museums are increasingly engaging with the colonialist contexts of Orientalism, highlighting the ideological justifications for European colonialist violence and subjugation3. 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 Orientalism3. This approach encourages a more nuanced and critical examination of Orientalist art and its impact on Western perceptions of the East3.

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.