Book Review: Exploring the beauty — and controversy — of Orientalist art

Exploring the beauty and controversy of Orientalist art. (Shutterstock)
Updated 16 January 2019
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Book Review: Exploring the beauty — and controversy — of Orientalist art

BEIRUT: Author James Parry examines the 19th century trend that saw scores of Western artists head to the Middle East in search of inspiration in this beautifully illustrated book.

“Orientalist Lives: Western Artists in the Middle East” looks at the lives and works of the diverse set of artists who traveled across the region and attempted to recreate their observations on canvas.

According to the book, Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and the eventual publication of a series of documents titled “Description de l’Égypte,” which sought to comprehensively catalog all known aspects of ancient and modern Egypt, starting from 1809, sparked an interest in Egypt and the wider region.

German painter Carl Haag (1820-1915) enthusiastically wrote that for “anyone in search of a new ground of subjects for their pencil, there is only one Cairo and artists ought to see it.”

Scottish painter David Roberts (1796-1864), one of the most famous Orientalist artists, anticipated that there would be a market in Europe for drawings and watercolors representing the street scenes, rich architecture and bountiful landscapes of these faraway places. He traveled first to Spain and Morocco and then to Egypt — a journey that made him famous. The success of Roberts’ paintings and lithographs sealed his reputation as one of the most influential Orientalists, even though he only made one trip to the region.

While he may have only undertaken one trip to the Middle East, this book details the lives of other artists who developed a long and intense relationship with a particular region or country. This is the case with Alphonse-Étienne Dinet, a French artist who traveled to North Africa, founded the Société des Peintres Orientalistes (Society for French Orientalist Painters) and even converted to Islam, changing his name to Nasreddine Dinet. He is known for his paintings of the Ouled Naïl tribe of Algeria.

This captivating book goes on to describe the rise and fall of Orientalist art’s popularity and explores the notion that such works are based on caricatures of Arab culture — propagated by Edward Said’s seminal 1978 book, “Orientalism.”

Valuing form over content, Orientalist artists conjured up exquisite images, exceptional detail and vivid emotions with superb technique, giving their paintings an almost photographic quality, and this book will give you insight into their journey east.


What We Are Reading Today: Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

Updated 23 May 2019
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What We Are Reading Today: Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

  • The author also shows how Franklin helped to create the American character

Benjamin Franklin is the Founding Father of the US who rose up the social ladder, from a leather-aproned shopkeeper to dining with kings. In bestselling author Walter Isaacson’s vivid and witty full-scale biography, we discover why Franklin seems to turn to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind his new-fangled spectacles, says a review published on goodreads.com.

By bringing Franklin to life, Isaacson shows how he helped to define both his own time and ours. 

He was, during his 84-year life, America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical—though not most profound—political thinkers. 

In this colorful and intimate narrative, Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin’s amazing life, from his days as a runaway printer to his triumphs as a statesman, scientist, and Founding Father. 

The author also shows how Franklin helped to create the American character and why he has a particular resonance in the 21st century.