The East has been an endless source of fascination and beauty, frequently drawn upon but just as frequently misrepresented. Although artists of all modern and early modern artistic periods have looked to the Middle East for inspiration, the 19th century saw a dramatic increase in representations of the region. The reason for this increased attention is multi-faceted; Napoleon’s year long sojourn to Egypt significantly raised interest and knowledge of the region, the Romantic movement’s interest in the exotic helped push that interest forward and Europe’s increased involvement with Near East politics gave the region further exposure in the popular press.
Although architecture was mildly affected by the trend, painting was most heavily influenced by the Orientalist tendencies. The paintings were inspired by fantastic visions of the region in its contemporary form as well as informed by an interest in the region’s rich history. Secular scenes depicting famous battles, empires and buildings were popular, portraying these lost moments in an enriched and ornate manner. Religious scenes that portray Christian stories in a stylized and ahistorical manner accompany scenes of Muslims in prayer. Slave markets, Bedouins and warriors were painted by the Orientalist artists, primarily French, as a means of capturing their audience’s imagination with these fanciful scenes.
The Orientalist trend of the 19th century exemplifies the Romantic artists’ interest in subjects perceived to be decadent, luxurious and mysterious. The paintings are often large, elaborate and filled with dramatic lighting and poses. Although this form of art slowed by the 20th century, hints of it remained in the Empire Expositions held throughout Europe, and the subject of the Near East remained popular with artists of the avant-garde, persisting to this day.