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Orientalist art defies fashions

orientalist art Dorotheum Auctioneers
A Look in the Mirror by Osman Hamdi Bey is the latest Orientalist painting to fetch a vast sum, selling for over $1m earlier this year
  • Demand led by Arab collectors
  • Lauded for use of light and colour
  • Qatar building dedicated museum

A girl in a yellow dress pouts as she adjusts her headscarf in the mirror. It might be the portrait of a young TikToker preparing for an evening out were it not for her opulent Ottoman surroundings.

A Look in the Mirror by the Turkish painter Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910) sold for €1 million ($1.05 million) in May.

It is the latest in a series of Orientalist paintings to fetch vast sums. Young Woman Reading, also by Hamdi, broke records for the category when it was auctioned for £5.7 million ($6.9 million) at Bonhams in 2019 – more than 10 times its presale low estimate of £600,000.  

Once disparaged as being over-romantic Western depictions of an exotic East, Orientalist paintings are enjoying their place in the sun.

Arab art collectors are particularly keen buyers, their appetite for works by modern artists from the Middle East matched only by their interest in historical depictions from the colonial era.

“The first impressions brought back from the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries generated huge excitement in Europe,” says Claude Piening, senior international specialist at Sotheby’s.

What’s really changed, Piening says, is the advent of new buyers from the regions depicted, as well as the wider Islamic world.

Orientalist artIslamic Arts Museum Malaysia
Hamdi’s Young Woman Reading broke records when it was auctioned for $6.9 million in 2019

The resurgence of interest made headlines in October 2019, when an auction of Orientalist paintings at Sotheby’s raised a record £33.5 million. It was, said the auction house, a “market-defining moment”.

For many years, Orientalist art fetched modest sums. Young Woman Reading was last bought for just £1,900 in the 1970s. At Prayer, a 19th-century portrait by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, was picked up for about £4,000 in 1999. It recently sold at auction for £75,000.  

Not all Arab enthusiasts are newcomers. The record-breaking Najd collection sold by Sotheby’s was formed in the 1980s by Saudi billionaire Nasser Al-Rashid.

Another notable collector is Shafik Gabr, the Egyptian industrialist and philanthropist, who has amassed a sizeable portfolio of French and German paintings since the 1990s.

Many artworks are appearing in public for the first time. Qatar is building a dedicated Orientalist art museum in Lusail for its collection of more than 300 paintings. In Kuala Lumpur, Young Woman Reading is currently the star of a show at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia’s Orientalist Paintings: Mirror Or Mirage? exhibition.

“The interest of many collectors in the Gulf and Asia lies in the light these paintings can shed on life in the Islamic world,” says Piening.

“Their quality can’t be disputed – the skill and mastery of light and colour is incredible – but more importantly, they provide a documentary insight into the Middle East at a time when very little representational art was produced within the region.”

European travelling artists combined their impressions of desert sunrises and Arabian nights with new pigments and emerging theories of colour, creating a “new chemistry of light” as an exhibition reviewer of the 1890s described it. 

Vibrant aniline pigments such as magenta appeared in art and fashion for the first time, while chemists produced the first synthetic versions of traditional dyes such as alizarin.

“There was a fascination with the Ottomans, with North Africa, Arabia and the Holy Land, in tandem with this global revolution in colour,” says Madeline Hewitson, researcher for the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Adult, Female, PersonSotheby's
The Tribute by Austrian painter Ludwig Deutsch

“International travel furnished artists with a new visual palette, but new techniques also allowed artists like David Roberts to produce beautifully coloured lithographs for audiences back home.” 

Reprints of pictures of Petra and the ruins of ancient Egypt by the Scottish painter Roberts can still be found in tourist bookshops across the region. A Cairo street scene he painted in 1842, Bazaar of the Coppersmiths, sold for £320,000 at Sotheby’s last May, more than four times its estimate.

There is a problematic side to Orientalism, as the influential academic Edward Said noted in the 1970s. But the lurid “harem paintings” he criticised are a world away from the fine observational art that now attracts collectors, say curators.

“While even the greatest artists wanted to enchant their audiences back home, they were also responding to a demand for topographic accuracy,” says Chris Beetles, a London gallery owner and watercolour specialist.

“They were very carefully documenting the colours and complexities of nature and the cultures they encountered.”

Desert, Nature, OutdoorsIslamic Arts Museum Malaysia
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Rider and his Steed in the Desert

Not all artists were outsiders, either. Though he trained in Paris, Hamdi founded the first school of art in his native Istanbul, sowing the seeds of a figurative art tradition that would spread to Baghdad and Cairo.

“He was painting Orientalist art but from the point of view of an insider,” says Piening.

“If you look closely, you notice cultural subtleties that were not evident to foreign artists. His paintings are not only historical records but part of an exchange of ideas, a complex dialogue between east and west that continues to this day.”

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