A small group of people, some on horseback, look at the ruins of a temple

An introduction to Orientalist painting

By Julia Tugwell, Co-curator, Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art

Publication date: 9 October 2019

Curator Julia Tugwell takes a closer look at the art movement of Orientalism, and the way in which North Africa and the Middle East were often represented as lands of beauty and intrigue by Western artists.

An introduction to Orientalist painting

'Orientalism' refers to the representation of the East in Western art which often blurred the line between fantasy and reality. The Orientalist art movement reached its height during the 19th century and is perhaps best known today for its production of impressive oil paintings and works on paper. These paintings were popular in the 19th century, as Europeans and North Americans increasingly turned their attentions to cultures overseas. The works were mostly by male Western artists, made to satisfy an enormous public interest in the lands of the Middle East and North Africa.

Many artists travelled to the places they depicted, whether Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo or Marrakesh. Others travelled no further than Paris or Vienna, using a mixture of photographs, props and imagination for inspiration. Recurring images included everything from detailed sketches of everyday life to highly imaginative scenes of the harem. Interest in Orientalism developed in tandem with European colonial activity, which allowed soldiers, traders and artists greater access to the places and peoples of these regions.

Faraway places

An important function of Orientalist painting was to create a visual record of places of interest. Such images were aimed at a growing market of Europeans and North Americans who either visited the Middle East and North Africa or were interested in the regions from afar. Travel was made easier by steamships and trains, so paintings tended to focus on cities, such as Constantinople, Cairo and Marrakesh, the arrival points for artists and their potential customers alike. Some images depicted sites of religious importance, both Christian and Muslim, while others captured the ancient sites of pre-Islamic history, such as the Egyptian pyramids.

A train of camels processes past a lake observed by three people. The Pyramid of Giza and palm trees are behind them.
Grand Pyramid de Gyzeh (The Great Pyramid of Giza), Charles Théodore Frère (1814–1888). Oil on panel. ©  Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

A picture in every street

Scenes of everyday life, whether realistic or imagined, were a particular source of interest to the Orientalist painters. Some images focused on a single individual, while others engaged with a multitude. Similarly, they ranged from quiet and contemplative pictures to wildly dramatic scenes. The most detailed were perhaps drawn from life, or betrayed the influence of photography – a newly emerging discipline. Others were clearly the products of a studio setting, where objects and clothes from different periods and places were liberally mixed as props.

Three men play a game of dice in the street while other men and boys observe
The Dice Players, Rudolph Weisse (b.1869). Oil on panel. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Picturing faith

Images of Muslims engaging with their faith, whether at prayer, performing the Hajj pilgrimage (as the image below shows) or studying in a madrasa (religious school), were an essential feature of the Orientalist vision. For Europeans and North Americans, religion was one of the key differences between themselves and the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. Pictures such as these could therefore simply be seen as evoking an exotic 'Orient'. Such depictions of religion can also be seen as a response to the anxieties of the time. European society and morality were in a state of flux – under pressure from industrialisation and secularism.

A procession of hundreds of people along a beach, some are on horseback or holding banners
The Hajj, Alfred Dehodencq (1822–1882). Oil on canvas. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Seeing people

During the 19th century, European and North American artists differed on how best to represent the various peoples of the world. Orientalist painters, who closely studied the different ethnic, religious and social groups of the Middle East and North Africa often focused on clothing. This was a continuation of the ‘costume book’ tradition of earlier centuries, as well as a response to the fashionable new practices of photography and ethnography (the study of people and cultures). Visitors to the Middle East and North Africa were often depicted in local dress, whether as a genuine attempt at cross-cultural existence or simply to experience the ‘unusual’ and different.

A white man with a beard wearing a red patterned headscarf and Middle East robes, with a curved sword over his shoulder
English artist John Frederick Lewis depicts himself in generic Middle Eastern dress, in Portrait of a Memlook Bey (1863) including this sash, which is displayed alongside the portrait in the exhibition. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

A hidden world

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Orientalist painting is the recurring image of the woman within the harem, which privileges the male gaze of the outsider. Although the harem was merely a private domestic space to which unfamiliar men would not be admitted, Europeans and North Americans were fascinated by what happened within. Most artists resorted to their imaginations, using the backdrop of the harem as an excuse to paint nude women. This invasive attention was, in many ways, a metaphor for the Orientalist approach to the region.

Interior of a wooden framed building in which women can be seen engaged in conversation and household tasks
Interior of part of the harem of the Grand Seigneur, Antoine-Ignace Melling (1763–1831), etching on paper, 1819. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

This is a largely imagined interior of an Ottoman harem. A place of pleasure and decadence, details include the everyday rituals and relationships between the women. Although it appears realistic, on closer inspection it is filled with unlikely details. The artist, Antoine-Ignace Melling, did design a palace for the Ottoman princess Hatice Sultana, which included a harem, but he would never have seen it in use.


The artwork provoked Turkish artist İnci Eviner to create a critical response, Harem  the final work in the exhibition.

With this work, Eviner challenges the Orientalist view of the harem as a place of sexual intrigue and subjugation. She reclaims Melling’s depiction of a harem, turning his masculine and pseudo-realistic view into a living, breathing space. Opening with the 19th-century work, Eviner slowly replaces Melling’s imagined characters with real ones of her own – active women who are protesting, praying and attempting to escape. Eviner explains: 'The figures shaped within the Orientalist fantasies of the age became part of a distinctly scientific description… this is why I was drawn into this hex; I wanted to tear this scene apart and get into it'.


Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art was open from 10 October 2019 – 26 January 2020.

Supported by Jack Ryan

Sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank

Organised with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia