Orientalism refers to the imitation or depiction of aspects of
Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists. An "Orientalist"
may be a person engaged in these activities, but it is also the traditional term
for any scholar of Oriental studies. Orientalism was more widely used in art
history referring mostly to the works of French artists in the 19th century, whose
subject matter, color and style used elements from their travel to the
Mediterranean countries of North Africa and the Near East (or western Asia).
These meanings were given a new twist by 20th century scholar Edward Said in his
controversial book Orientalism, in which he uses the term to describe a Western
tradition, both academic and artistic, of hostile and deprecatory views of the
East, shaped by the attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th
centuries. When used in this sense, Orientalism implies essentializing and
prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples. Said was
critical of this scholarly tradition and also of certain modern scholars,
particularly Bernard Lewis.
In contrast, some modern scholars have used the term to refer to writers of the
Imperialist era who had pro-Eastern attitudes, as opposed to those who saw nothing
of value in non-Western cultures.
Orientalism refers to the Orient or East, in contrast to the Occident or
In the later Roman Empire, the Praetorian prefecture of the East, the
Praefectura Praetorio Orientis, included most of the Eastern Roman Empire from the
eastern Balkans eastwards, its easternmost part was the Diocese of the East, the
Dioecesis Orientis, corresponding roughly to Greater Syria.
In time, the common understanding of 'the Orient' has continually shifted
eastwards, as Western explorers traveled farther in to Asia. After a period, as
Europe learned of countries farther East, the defined limit of 'the Orient' shifted
eastwards. It finally reached the Pacific Ocean, with those nations in what
Westerners came to call 'the Far East'. In the West, these shifts in time and
identification sometimes confuse the scope (historical and geographic) of Oriental
Yet, there remain contexts where 'the Orient' and 'Oriental' denote older
definitions, e.g. 'Oriental spices' typically are from the Earth's regions
extending from the Middle East to sub-continental India to Indo-China. Travelers
may again take the Orient Express train from Paris-Istanbul, a route established in
the early 20th century. It never reached the nations bordering the Pacific Ocean,
or what is currently understood to be the Orient.
In contemporary English, Oriental is usually synonymous for the goods from the
parts of East Asia traditionally occupied by East Asians and most Central Asians
and Southeast Asians racially categorized as "Mongoloid". This excludes Indians,
Arabs, most other West Asian peoples. Because of historical discrimination against
Chinese and Japanese, in some parts of the United States, the term is considered
derogatory, for example, Washington state prohibits use of the word "Oriental" in
legislation and government documentation, preferring the word "Asian" instead.
Orientalism has also come to mean the adoption of typical eastern motifs, styles
and subject matter in art, architecture, and design. Turquerie was the oldest such
fashion, which began as early as the late 15th century, and continued until at
least the 18th.
Depictions of the Orient in art and literature
Depictions of Islamic "Moors" and "Turks" (imprecisely named Muslim groups of
North Africa and West Asia) can be found in Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art.
In Biblical scenes in Early Netherlandish painting, secondary figures, especially
Roman and Jewish ones, were given exotic costumes that distantly reflected the
turbans and other clothes of the contemporary Near East. The Three Magi in Nativity
scenes were an espe Renaissance cial focus for this. Venice had a phase of
particular interest in depictions of the Ottoman Empire in painting, Gentile
Bellini, who travelled to Constantinople and painted the Sultan, and Vittore
Carpaccio were the leading exponents. By then the depictions were more accurate,
with men typically dressed all in white. The depiction of Oriental carpets in
Renaissance painting sometimes draws from Orientalist interest, but more often just
reflects the prestige these expensive objects had in the period.
In the nineteenth century, when more artists traveled to the Middle East, they
began representing more numerous scenes of Oriental culture. In many of these
works, they portrayed the Orient as exotic for its differences, colorful and
sensual. Such works typically concentrated on Near-Eastern Islamic cultures, as
those were the ones visited by artists as France became more engaged in North
Africa. French artists such as Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Leon Gerome and Jean Auguste
Dominique Ingres painted many works depicting Islamic culture, often including
lounging odalisques. They stressed both lassitude and visual spectacle. The later
Russian artist Alexander Roubtzoff was also fascinated by what he saw on travels to
When Ingres, director of the French Academie de peinture, painted a highly
colored vision of a turkish bath, he made his eroticized Orient publicly acceptable
by his diffuse generalizing of the female forms (who might all have been of the
same model.) If his painting had been titled "In a Paris Brothel", it would have
been far less acceptable. More open sensuality was seen as acceptable in the exotic
Orient. This orientalizing imagery persisted in art into the early 20th century, as
evidenced in Matisse's orientalist semi-nudes from his Nice period, and his use of
Oriental costumes and patterns. In these works, artists used the "Orient" as a
mirror to Western culture, or as a way of expressing its hidden or illicit
In his novel Gustave Flaubert used ancient Carthage in North Africa as a foil to
ancient Rome. He portrayed its culture as morally corrupting and suffused with
dangerously alluring eroticism. This novel proved hugely influential on later
portrayals of ancient Semitic cultures.
The use of the orient as an exotic backdrop continued in the movies, for
instance, those featuring Rudolph Valentino. Later the rich Arab in robes became a
more popular theme, especially during the oil crisis of the 1970s. In the 1990s the
Arab terrorist became a common villain figure in Western movies.