It was only with the publication in 1978 of Edward Said's book Orientalism that the term first took on a derogatory connotation. As succinctly summarized in the Wikipedia article devoted to the book, Said's problem was that:
"The principal characteristic of Orientalism is a 'subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab-Islamic peoples and their culture', which derives from Western images of what is Oriental (cultural representations) that reduce the Orient to the fictional essences of 'Oriental peoples' and 'the places of the Orient'; such cultural representations dominate the communications (discourse) of Western peoples with and about non-Western peoples."
The resulting controversy has colored any discussion of the eponymous nineteenth century art movement that sought to portray exotic Mideastern locations and peoples in terms of European fantasies, and indeed the cover of the first edition of Said's book was illustrated with a painting entitled The Snake Charmer by Jean-Léon Gérôme, the leading proponent of that school of art.
Not surprisingly, there is no mention of either Said or his book on the Met Museum's website even though the museum's current exhibit, Orientalist Paintings from the Collection of Kenneth Jay Lane, contains several works by Gérôme. Then again, these paintings are less extreme examples of the artist's oeuvre. Missing are such pieces as the above mentioned The Snake Charmer or the infamous Slavemarket. Instead, the two versions of Bashi-Bazouk (a type of Ottoman mercenary), the Study of Palm Trees, and the Woman at a Balcony are picturesque works not likely to give offense to anyone however pertinent they may be to Said's argument.
At this exhibit, Said's contention is much better illustrated by the work of Gérôme's countryman Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant. Paintings such as Odalisque, Afternoon in the Harem, and The Serbian Concubine give free rein to the most titillating European sexual fantasies concerning the Mideast even if their lurid content is portrayed in the most correct academic style. In a similar manner, George Clairin, best known for his 1876 portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, reveals the prejudice inherent in European preconceptions of Mideastern life in The Opium Smokers.
Orientalism can also be seen as an outgrowth the Romantic spirit that engulfed Western Europe in the early nineteenth century. The lure of faraway places was central to the the movement's vision, the most notable example being Byron's fatal journey to Greece. Thus that arch-Romantic Eugène Delacroix (unfortunately not represented at this show) included several Mideastern scenes - such as Collision of Moorish Horsemen and Fanatics of Tangier - among his paintings after having traveled to Spain and North Africa in 1832. After 1853, this same preference for distant cultures would find expression in the Japonisme that inspired artists as disparate as Whistler and Van Gogh.
It is in this Romantic sense that Orientalist painting has always held an undeniable attraction for me and become something of a guilty pleasure. Many of the paintings shown at the Met's exhibit could very well be used as illustrations for an edition of The Arabian Nights. What child dreaming of Aladdin or Sinbad wouldn't be delighted by Benjamin-Constant's The Sultan's Tiger, my personal favorite among the works shown?
The exhibit continues through September 24, 2017.