Orientalist Art focuses mainly on the Islamic world (the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia) from a European perspective. It depicts the peoples, cultures, religions, traditions of these regions from an outsider’s view. Compared with Western Europe, the Islamic world seemed to be almost an entirely different planet: people dressed differently, spoke differently, worshiped God differently, and even made art differently in the Islamic world. While Orientalism was a phenomenon in European art from the Renaissance onward, it was in the 19th century that Orientalism became a major theme of European art and culture. As the world grew more connected, and Islamic states like the Ottoman Empire opened their doors to foreigners, Europe grew increasingly bewitched by the Islamic world.
Orientalist art often focuses on the people of the Islamic world. European artists were fascinated by the lived experience of people of the Islamic world, from soldiers and merchants to women and children. Women in particular were a common subject. Especially popular were odalisques, the enslaved women and concubines of the harem. Europeans were intrigued by the concept of a harem, and artists translated this interest into works of art that often featured nude or scantily clad women surrounded by Middle Eastern furnishings within Islamic interiors.
An Austrian cold painted Orientalist bronze sculpture, sold by Nest Egg Auctions in 2022, shows a sleeping odalisque. She lays atop a large pillow covered with a tiger pelt. Below her is an oriental carpet, and she is covered by a blanket. Like many other sculptures by Austrian artists like Franz Xaver Bergman (Austrian, 1861 – 1936), the blanket is removable. The viewer can then gaze upon the sleeping woman in the nude.
This exposing aspect of Orientalist art is one criticism against it. Certain scholars such as Edward Said have criticized some such works as being demeaning of the people they represent. In any case, these figures are a historical document of European attitudes and beliefs regarding the Islamic world in the 19th century.
Another popular theme in Orientalist art is prayer. Unlike European Christianity, Islam requires prayer five times daily. During their daily prayers, Muslims stand, kneel, and prostrate themselves on the ground. The image of Muslims at prayer was alien and strange to European viewers, and likewise inspired countless artists in a variety of media. Nest Egg Auctions has sold a number of examples of such works, including a watercolor of prayer in a mosque by Maria Martinetti (Italian, 1864 – 1921). In this work, we see two men in traditional dress praying. One is standing, with his hands up in prayer, while the other is seated with his arms in the same position. A third man also sits, studying the Qur’an (the Muslim holy book). Besides the colorful and detailed rugs beneath the men’s feet, Martinetti also shows the horseshoe arches of the mosque (a characteristic of North African Islamic architecture especially).
In addition, another cold painted Austrian bronze, also sold by Nest Egg, shows a Muslim man at prayer on a prayer rug. He stands, with his hands up in the traditional prayer position. His shoes are off to the side, and he wears a sword and a turban.
Genre Scenes and Landscapes
Other examples of Orientalist art sold by Nest Egg show various figures and scenes. One painting, by a Hungarian artist, depicts Arab traders on camels riding through the desert. Another painting shows the Golden Horn of Istanbul from the Bosphorus, featuring the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The variety and detail that went into Orientalist art demonstrates its immense power in the 19th century.
Selling Orientalist Art
Orientalist works of art are still popular at auction, and Nest Egg Auctions is always happy to sell examples of this fascinating style. If you have an example of Orientalist art in any medium (painting, watercolor, sculpture, print, etc.), we would love to see it! Please send us a picture of your piece, and we would be happy to discuss it with you.