Orientalism in American Painting, 1860–1900
April 16, 2008
Brian T. Allen
Director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy
One of the most enigmatic aspects of American art in the 19th century is Orientalism. Beginning with Frederic Church in the 1860s, American artists traveled and imagined the vast areas from Morocco to India, providing exquisite paintings for an enthusiastic audience of collectors.
For Church, the Orient had profoundly religious connotations, less as something foreign than something seminal, the birthplace of Christianity. For artists of the next generation, including John Singer Sargent, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Edwin Lord Weeks, Sanford Gifford, and Frederic Bridgman, the region evoked a fantasy world of illicit pleasures and idle days, a world devoid of the West’s passion for time, rectitude, logic, and progress. American Orientalism was, of American art movements in the nineteenth century, probably most indebted to a French prototype practiced with such sureness and suavity by, among others, Jean-Leon Gérôme. Yet American Orientalism often expressed less about the subject depicted than the mood of America. Orientalism in American Painting, 1860–1900 considers the many visions of Orientalism among American artists, exploring one of the most rarely studied and understood aspects of this country’s cultural development in the nineteenth century.