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Colonialism and Orientalism

Colonialism and Orientalism

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will examine colonialism and orientalism in the art of the nineteenth century.

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Tutorial

An overview of colonialism's effect on the development of 'Orientalism' as an artistic style.

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about Colonialism and Orientalism. As you're watching the video feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the historical context of 19th century Colonialism, identify important examples of Orientalist works of art from this time period. Key terms as always are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is Orientalism, in art the imitation or depiction of aspects of cultures from the Middle East and Asia, usually in a highly inaccurate and biased fashion. Colonialism, the unequal relationship, acquisition, and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory.

Harem, the section of a Muslim household that is reserved for women. It could also refer to wives and concubines. Odalisque, a woman that lives in a harem. Stereotype, widely held but over-simplified and sometimes inaccurate ideas people based on their gender, ethnicity and other qualities. The big idea for today is that the 19th century in Europe marks a time of significant territorial expansion and colonialism in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. This exposure to and fascination with other cultures can be seen in the Orientalism in works of art from this period. The artwork that we're looking at today dates from between 1827 and 1888. We'll be traveling to Paris, France today.

Colonialism is essentially the spread of one culture into a foreign area with the establishment of a permanent colony within that recently acquired area. This occurred a lot during the 19th century with countries from all over Europe staking their claim in foreign lands in attempts to expand their empire. Now, it's a complicated history with some rather dark and nasty consequences, some of which we still see today. For example, many scholars argue that Africa never really recovered from the effects of European colonialism. Orientalism is linked to this time as European powers were seizing control around the world, and not just in Asia. England, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany are just a few of the countries of Europe that established colonies at one time or another outside of Europe.

So, for example, Great Britain in Canada but also throughout Africa as you can see in the pink, France in Africa and Vietnam, Belgium and the German Reich in Africa, and the Netherlands in the island nations of Southeast Asia. But nobody did it quite like Great Britain. At one time the British Empire was the most dominant and powerful empire in the world. And if you include the British Isles as part of the European continent, Britain at the onset of World War I had recognized territories on six of the seven continents on the planet and a seventh unrecognized claim in Antarctica. It's not too shabby for little island country.

In the early part of the 19th century, the Empire of France was the dominant force on the continental Europe. And the spread of France into the Middle East and Asia exposed the people of Europe to the cultures of these areas. Europeans were fascinated by other cultures but also tended to view them as inferior to their own. Now, Orientalism in art refers to the inaccurate depiction of these cultures, often through a lens of stereotype and European cultural superiority, that appears in works of art. Now, though most Orientalist paintings depict scenes from the Middle East and feature Muslims, it should be noted that there is some slippage in the term in how it can also apply to Asia as a whole.

The artists Eugene Delacroix, Jean Ingres, and Jean-Leon Gerome were noted for their Orientalist work. French Orientalism was influenced not only by the Napoleonic campaigns but also by romantic interests in the sublime and the exotic. You may recognize this painting from our discussion of romanticism. It depicts the Assyrian King Sardanapalus casually reclining and preparing to commit suicide by immolation, or burning, to avoid facing defeat. But he doesn't plan on going solo. Oh no, he's taking his prized possessions along with him, including women from his harem. Now, you can tell by the gestures and expressions of these women that they may be second guessing their master's decision.

This painting by Delacroix as well as this painting by Ingres called The Turkish Baths were influential in connecting Oriental themes to sensuality. Now, the paintings depict scenes featuring Odalisques in harems, nude, of course, and with a few exceptions generally depicted as relaxed or at leisure. An interesting comparison to paintings featuring pleasure slaves is a more sobering depiction of the slave trade by the artist Jean-Leon Gerome. This is one of several paintings depicting the Middle Eastern slave trade by Gerome.

Interpretations of this painting are varied in their explanations of what the artist is trying to say, if anything. It's been described by some as a scientific painting of veiled eroticism. Personally, I always felt her expression, which appears almost vegetative or at least detached from reality, really downplayed the eroticism potential. But others suggest it's an implication of European superiority over Middle Eastern cultures in how the men are shown in extremely degrading behavior in their assessment a fair skinned slave, checking her mouth as if she was a horse.

Now, I don't want to discount any of these suggestions. Any or all of them could be correct. It could also be a realistic depiction of the slave trade of the time. The spread of the Ottoman Empire into parts of Eastern Europe created the potential for a sizable market, pardon the term, for fair skinned women. It's very likely she's of Eastern European descent and unfortunately has made her way east or south into Africa as a victim of the sex trade.

So that brings us to the end of our lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the historical context of 19th century Colonialism, identify important examples of Orientalist works of art from this time period? And once again, our big idea for today is that the 19th century in Europe marks a time of significant territorial expansion and colonialism in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. This exposure to and fascination with other cultures can be seen in the Orientalism in works of art from this period. There you go. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Colonialism and Orientalism"

Key Terms

Orientalism

In art, the imitation or depiction of aspects of culture from the Middle East and Asia, usually in a highly inaccurate and biased fashion.

Colonialism

The unequal relationship, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another.

Harem

The section of a Muslim household that is reserved for women. Could also refer to wives and concubines.

Odalisque

A woman that lives in a harem.

Stereotype

Widely held, but oversimplified and sometimes inaccurate ideas about people based on their gender, ethnicity, and other qualities. 


Citations

Death of Sardanapalus; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Delacroix_-_La_Mort_de_Sardanapale_%281827%29.jpg Turkish Bath; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Bain_Turc,_by_Jean_Auguste_Dominique_Ingres,_from_C2RMF_retouched.jpg The Slave Market; Public Domain: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:G%C3%A9r%C3%B4me_Jean-L%C3%A9on_The_Slave_Market.jpg; Image of Colonialism Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:World_1914_empires_colonies_territory.PNG

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Stereotype

    Widely held, but oversimplified and sometimes inaccurate ideas about people based on their gender, ethnicity, and other qualities.

  • Odalisque

    A woman that lives in a harem.

  • Harem

    The section of a Muslim household that is reserved for women. Could also refer to wives and concubines.

  • Colonialism

    The unequal relationship, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another.

  • Orientalism

    In art, the imitation or depiction of aspects of culture from the Middle East and Asia, usually in a highly inaccurate and biased fashion.