NEW YORK—At the crossroads between realism and fantasy, fanciful decoration and meaningful symbolism, and admiration and condescension lies Orientalism. In painting, the movement is known for depicting aspects of Middle Eastern and East Asian culture.
Much has been debated on the issue of whether the movement’s artists did justice to the cultures they chose to depict. What helps in determining this point is to view at least some of the works in person.
The chance is provided by the current exhibition, Encountering the Orient: Masterworks From the Dahesh Museum of Art, which is being hosted by Christie’s New York at the Rockefeller Plaza.
The Dahesh Museum has been homeless since 2007, when it vacated its Midtown premises. As the only art institute in America devoted to Europe’s academically trained artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, collaborations like this one help keep the collection available to the public.
Neither Christie’s nor the museum plans to sell any of the works.
The exhibition features 30 major Orientalist works from the museum’s collection by well-known artists such as Rudolf Ernst, Ludwig Deutsch, Gustav Bauernfeind, and Frederick Arthur Bridgman, as well as evocative works by less familiar names, such as José Tapiró y Baró. The works are not usually on public display.
The themes depicted shed light on each artist’s aims. Regardless of the motivation, however, there is an overwhelming sense that all of these artists are eager to communicate the vibrancy of light and color, as well as the sense of mystery of the Orient.
“In Europe, Orientalist artists found a ready market through the official exhibits such as the Royal Academy in London and the Paris Salon. By the middle of the 19th century, a wealthy middle class emerged in Europe as the main buyers of art, and usually purchased finished artworks from the official exhibits and the increasing number of commercial art galleries,” said Alia Nour, associate curator at the Dahesh Museum of Art, who developed Encountering the Orient.
Following the industrial revolution, new means of transportation and an ever-increasing fascination with the Middle East prompted artists like Rudolf Ernst to travel and produce some of the most popular works of the movement.
In his painting “The Letter,” featured in the exhibition, Ernst combines objects and details from various cultures, all in favor of the scintillating effect.
“Unlike some Orientalist artists whose approach to the subject was strictly topographical or ethnographic, Ernst often blended the architecture, artifacts, and costumes of diverse Oriental cultures for decorative effect,” Nour said. Some other artists, such as his compatriot Ludwig Deutsch, shared in this technique.
Other artists, such as Gustav Bauernfeind, were more interested in showing real scenes. Bauernfeind’s painting “Jaffa, Recruiting of Turkish Soldiers in Palestine” (1888) is big enough to almost walk through. Because of this, it feels as if we are at the scene itself, witnessing the departure of military convicts who must part with their distraught wives and infants—an event that the artist actually saw.
Many scholars and artists also went to the Orient in search for Biblical sites.
Louis Haghe’s lithograph “Jerusalem From the Mount of Olives” (after David Roberts) is a delicate and captivating work. It is one of around 250 lithographs published in Roberts’ multi-volume illustrated book “The Holy Land: Syria, Idumea, Egypt, Nubia” between 1842 and 1849, according to Nour.
The lithographs originated from sketches, watercolors, and drawings produced by Roberts during his trips to the Middle East. Haghe was responsible for transforming them into lithographs for book.
According to Nour, many Romantic artists wanted to get away from the rigors of urban life and modernization. They sought out a part of the world where they could have a sense of calm and find people not yet touched by modernization.
In “A Cairo Market,” French artist Philippe Pauy depicts merchants in a vibrantly colorful setting, which is made even more striking by the central character dressed in white, who looks to us as if to say hello.
There is a sense that this scene has been happening the same way for hundreds of years, and we viewers, as well as participants, are merely a temporary interruption before the merchants can resume their trade. It’s no wonder that the Orientalist movement has become increasingly popular, given such freshness of subject matter and easy aesthetic appeal.
Appreciation was not always one-sided. Théodore Frère, whose painting “Along the Nile at Giza” is also part of the exhibition, was actually among the first generation of Orientalist artists to go to Egypt and Algeria. He established a studio in Cairo, and the Egyptian government honored him with the title of lord.
“This also plays to the point of the interaction that was happening between the Western artists and the local people in the different countries,” noted Nour.
This point also flies in the face of critics who find the Orientalists to be anything other than artists in search of treasures in subject matter, to be enjoyed and treasured in return.
Encountering the Orient: Masterworks From the Dahesh Museum of Art will be on view at Christie’s from March 27 to April 15, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Gallery talks will be held on April 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, and 14 at 2 p.m. Visit daheshmuseum.org or christies.com for more information.