Recently the results of a European painting auction were posted on Sotheby's. I was shocked as I looked through the images and realized that these were prime examples of something I had read about in my Contemporary Asian Art class, Orientalism. Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said, is a series of false assumptions about Eastern culture, expressed by a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture." European artists would often depict exotic lands and people in images and sculpture as though they were documentary works; voyeuristic in nature, the art was intended to appear educational and factual. Emphasizing the strangeness of Eastern countries, artists perpetuated a vision of a strange land; whether those artists had ever seen an Eastern land or not.
I was surprised to see that these paintings and sculptures were still being presented as documentary works. It made me wonder how many of those pieces were purchased because of the same stereotypes of a strange land that caused those pieces to be created in the first place.
"Odalisque" by Edward Cucuel $29,300 Cucuel was an American, born in San Francisco in 1875. He moved to Europe in the 1890s and studied as a painter in Paris; he settled in Berlin for an extended time before returning to the United States. He never traveled to the Middle East though. How did he find the model for this painting then? Notice the strange paleness of the "Middle Eastern" model and the ambiguity of the cloth draped room. This painting glorifies the mystery of Middle Eastern women, but does it allow for true appreciation of those women? Or does this painting simply lend to a stereotype?
"An Arab Warrior with Standard" by Henri Ple $30,500 Ple was a French artist, who had also never seen a real Arab. This sculpture emphasizes the stereotype of violent, uncontrollable, men.
"At the Fountain" by Franz Bergman $7,500 A sculpture that emphasizes the strange, religious, and mysterious qualities of Eastern countries.
"Femme Voilee (a veiled woman)" by Jean Leon Gerome $36,500 Once again, notice the pale flesh of the woman; artists often created Eastern women by modeling them after European women. It is assumed that most of these artists didn't think much, or care, about the differenced between Middle Eastern skin tones and European skin tones.
"Her Favorite Pet" by Adolphe Weisz $19,700 I like this one because of, again, the skin tone of the model and because of the idea that in Eastern lands it's common to have lions as pets. Don't all Middle Eastern women dress like that and sit around on embroidered cushions while scratching the chin of their favorite lion?