Kristian Davies, The Orientalists: Western Artists in
Arabia, the Sahara, Persia & India
(Laynfaroh, 2005)
Gerard-Georges Lemaire, The Orient in Western Art (Konemann, 2005)

My fascination with Orientalist art substantially predates my deepening involvement with literature about the so-called Orient. I can clearly recall the first time we visited the Portland Museum of Art, over fifteen years ago, standing entranced in front of an Orientalist painting that is part of the permanent collection. By the American expatriate Edwin Lord Weeks, it's titled "The Great Mogul and his Court Returning from the Great Mosque at Delhi, India." Full of light and color, it makes me feel as though I am actually gazing at the elephants and their riders.

Before we proceed further, let me give you a sense of what I mean by Orientalist art. It's a term generally used to describe the portrayal of the Orient (a geographic region that extends from Spain on the west to India on the east, depending on how you look at it) in artwork executed by Westerners (people from Europe, England and America, primarily). The heyday of Orientalist art extended from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, coinciding with such events as the first appearance of The Arabian Nights in French and English translations (see my review of The Arabian Nights: A Companion for more background on this), Napoleon Bonaparte's brief but culturally significant "conquest" of Egypt (entertainingly depicted in Napoleon's Pyramids review), and travels to the Orient undertaken by people who wrote letters and journals describing their experiences (including the women chronicled in Dreaming of East review. Many of the most renowned of the Orientalist painters spent considerable time "in the field," and their paintings reflect that direct, intimate contact with their subject matter, whether people, buildings or landscapes. Indeed, it is the often incredibly detailed depiction of place and time that attracts me to this art, not the form itself.

I came upon these two marvelous books when I was browsing the Amazon database for wall calendars featuring Orientalist paintings. Yes, I found a calendar (scenes from Egypt by the Scotsman David Roberts) but then I kept looking down the list. These are typical art books, large and heavy, hard-cover, solidly bound, printed on glossy coated stock. They are very pricey, even at discount, but decidedly worth it if you want to learn about Orientalist art, the people who painted it, and the places that inspired their work. They are sufficiently different in both their approach and in the selections of paintings they offer as exemplars to justify buying both of them if Orientalist art is one of your passions!

From his dust jacket bio, I learned that Kristian Davies was born in Hong Kong and grew up in the U.S. He studied art history at Northwestern University and at the University of the New Sorbonne in Paris, traveled around the Mediterranean and spent time living in the Middle East. In the introduction to The Orientalists, Davies notes that he traveled to Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, carrying with him copies of the few books on Orientalist paintings that were available at the time. From an essay, I also discovered that he and his brother grew up in a household surrounded by paintings -- his father is a devoted art collector. 

All of these aspects of Davies' life and experiences infuse The Orientalists. He's also a damned good writer, elegant and concise. There's just enough narrative in this book to provide context for the paintings. I read nearly every word, which is not my usual practice with an art history books; it was that absorbing. He refers to his own encounters with the originals of the paintings, integrates biographical information about the artists with historical background on the images portrayed in their paintings, calls the reader's attention to significant details and recurring themes, deploys extended direct quotes from other sources in a tasteful and judicious matter, and provides meticulously detailed captions and footnotes. His bibliography is incredible, chock full of primary and secondary reference works in English, German, French and Italian. It's only two pages long because the pages are very large and the type is very, very small.

Then there's the artwork, oh my! The sensory onslaught starts with the dustjacket cover, a detail of "Pilgrims Going to Mecca" (Leon Belly, 1861) depicting men seated on camels, face-on, their small shadows suggesting that they are riding in the middle of the day across a desert plain. The inside front cover is a detail of "View of Cairo" (Jean-Leon Gerome, 1891) showing the city studded with domes and minarets, a women in the foreground hanging laundry on a rooftop clothesline while two other women lounge nearby in the shade of a makeshift tent. The frontispiece shows a detail from "The Vanguard of the Caravan" (Adolf Von Meckel, undated), the title page a detail from "View of Ezbekiah and the Coptic Quarter of Cairo" (Prosper Marilhat, 1833). The reader encounters all of these intensely powerful images before turning to the introduction. The experience of color and shape is truly overwhelming! I would have a hard time picking favorites, but I really find myself returning again and again to paintings like "The Carpet Merchant" (Jean-Leon Geome, ca. 1887), which provide colorful, almost photo-realistic, images of carpets and the carved patterns on exterior walls, the folds of cloth in the robes of the people.

Davies organized this magnificent offering in a somewhat idiosyncratic manner. It worked for me, but it might not be everyone's cuppa tea. Some of his chapter headings feature the names of the painters he most admires (and he does have impeccable taste!), others a few key themes he wants to highlight (such as "The Desert and the Caravan," "The Armed Guard," and "Women"). At a point about two-thirds of the way through the book, he's interposed a collection of essays describing the lives of four Europeans whom he considers paragons of Orientalism: Sir Richard Burton, Jean-Louis Burckhardt, Lady Jane Digby el-Mezrab, and Arthur Rimbaud. To further set this section apart from the rest, it's printed on a light tan-colored stock, which only appears on the opening page of each of the other sections.

Gerard-Georges Lemaire was born in Paris in 1948. According to his dustjacket biosketch, he studied at the Institut d'histoire de l'art and at the École pratique des hautes etudes in Paris. He's worked in editing and organized more than seventy art exhibitions, in addition to writing some thirty-five books, most, but not all, on subjects related to art and cultural history. He originally wrote The Orient in Western Art in French. A team of four people working in association with Cambridge Publishing Management translated the text into English; a fifth person with the same firm undertook the editing needed to bring all the pieces together smoothly. The resulting text is both more extensive and a quite a bit drier (i.e., more academic, less personal) in tone than that in The Orientalists.

A few other attributes distinguish The Orient in Western Art from The Orientalists. As the title suggests, the scope is broader, bracketing the Orientalist period with paintings from a much longer historical span, starting in the fifteenth century (Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453) and ending in the late twentieth century. The book is primarily organized by time period, with the most extensive coverage devoted to the heyday of Orientalism in the nineteenth century.

The cover painting of a richly-clad woman leaning against a cushion ("Algerian Woman and her Slave" by Ange Tissier, 1860) is the first indication of Lemaire's thematic preferences. He seems to have a great fondness for paintings of the so-called odalisque, which he defines as "a white, Turkish lady of the harem." While the woman on the cover wears clothing, many of the women portrayed in the paintings inside the book do not. Their poses range from the discreet to the alluring. While there are lots of bare breasts, even the most erotic of these images avoid pubic areas and body hair. A noteworthy example of this is "Odalisque with a Slave" (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1842).

Lemaire's selections also include a much greater emphasis on Biblical, mythological, hunting and battle scenes that are clearly the product of their creators' imaginations and not based on their direct observations of actual places or events, such as "The Tiger Hunt" (Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1616) and the iconic "Rest in Egypt" (Luc Olivier Merson, 1880). His broader scope enables him to include paintings by Picasso (e.g., "The Harem," 1906), Matisse ("Small Mulatto Woman," 1912) and Klee ("Camel in the Desert," 1914) -- these are radically different in style from the works of even the latest of the Orientalists. While I greatly appreciated Lemaire's inclusion of paintings by the Turkish artists Osman Hamdi Bey and Prince Abdulmecid, he gives little emphasis or page space to either of them.

The Orient in Western Art is slightly larger in overall size (about three quarters of an inch wider) and about fifty pages longer than The Orientalists. Like The Orientalists, it's printed on heavy coated stock and full of colorful prints of paintings, many of which literally cover the pages. Documentation of each work of art appears in a caption next to the piece or on the preceding page when the piece covers the whole next page-location/ownership credits for each picture are assembled in the back of the book. A nice feature in this book is a set of brief biographies of the featured artists. The bibliography is divided into sections for general works; exhibitions; and exhibition catalogs, articles and other references sorted by artist. There's also a glossary of terms, among them Berber, dervish, odalisque, and souk. Not surprisingly, there's also an index.

If, like me, you don't expect to make a trip to any of the great museums of Europe where many of the originals of these magnificent paintings hang, these books are the next best thing!

[Donna Bird]