Orientalism by Eduard Said – An Overview

Born an Arab Palestinian in Jerusalem but with American citizenship through his father, Eduard Said was a professor at Columbia University and a founding figure of the critical theory field of Post Colonialism. He is well-known for writing the book Orientalism, in 1978, through which he wanted to clear the public perception of the Orient, which in those times meant more or less the opposite of Occident.

He saw that the western world had a false cultural assumption of the Orient, in general, and the Middle East, in particular. He tried to open the eyes of the reader by pointing out that it is difficult to single-label a vast amount of territory, which includes Asia and the Middle East, where you have such a variety of cultures and civilizations.

Although the word Orient did not have a negative connotation, it described a romanticized culture, different from the western cultures, inferior, and in need to be changed and civilized by the powerful and evolved societies of the West. This is where Said’s book tried to change the western mentality, to show the Orient as an important part of the past, present and future of the world’s heritage.

Said pointed out that the Eastern World is not only adjacent to Europe; it is the place of the greatest, richest and oldest European colonies, and the source of Europe’s civilizations and languages.

Said criticized the work of other writers, like Bernard Lewis, who saw the Islam as an “irrational herd” ruled “by instincts, passions, and unreflecting hatred”. In return, Lewis mentioned that Said overlooked the fact that, during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras, the West contributed to the study of the Eastern cultures, and that the reflection of the East as a negative mirror of the West was not wholly true, as the distortions were not always negative. He also pointed out that, in the 20th century, derogatory portrayal of the Westerners could be found in the works of Eastern artists, like Chinese, Japanese and Indian. Even more, recently, the West started to be seen negatively by the East – the term Occidentalism does not always reflect civilization to the Orient.

Although the 19th century Orientalism was not depicting a realistic image of the Orient, the Eastern culture has always fascinated the West, inspired artists and attracted travelers to their mystical and beautiful landscapes, traditions and people.

Orientalism – The Main Styles in Europe

The allure of the fascinating East, including Turkey, Greece, the Middle East and North Africa, has captured and inspired the imagination of the western artists. Whether it was to imitate and copy decorative arts and crafts, or to inspire architecture and paintings, these cultures brought exotic and unique styles in the life of the western civilization.

Here are some styles influenced by Orientalism:


Based on the Islamic arabesque, this style left its mark in Europe during the Renaissance, in the late 15th century, in works like bookbinding.


As the name says, this style has its roots in the Turkish culture and was used from the 15th century till late 18th century. We can find it in the decorative arts, inspired by the Turkish costumes from that time, and in art depicting, where the main theme was the powerful Ottoman Empire. As a portal for trading with the Ottomans, Venice, Italy, became the first center, followed by France in the 18th century.


The Chinese influence in Europe started with the activity of the British, Danish, Dutch and French East India companies. By trading with the Far East, they brought back ideas, arts and handcrafting techniques. In the West, the attempts to imitate the Chinese ceramics were just partially successful. The Chinese decorations, tin-glazed pottery, like blue and white Ming, were adopted in Delft, The Netherlands, while porcelain technique for dishes, vases and tea-wares, was copied in Meissen, Germany.

The Pagodas, the famous towers from China, found their way into the western gardens and, even though at small scale, inside the houses as art.


The Japanese style influenced the western arts and artists like the French famous artists: Monet and Degas. It all started in the 19th century, when the Japanese woodblock prints were imported into the west. These techniques of printing books and other texts have its origins in China, with examples printed on clothes before the year 220.

We find aspects of Japanese tradition in the painting The Peacock Room, by James McNeil Whistler, a masterpiece of interior decorative mural art. A beautiful house with Japanese elements, nowadays a Californian Historical Landmark and Museum in Pasadena, is the Gamble House, created in 1908-09 by the architects Greene and Greene.


It started with the occupation of Egypt, by Napoleon in 1798, when western travelers found a new inspiration in Near and Middle East for their paintings or prints. An important effect on the French architecture and decorative arts in the beginning of the 19th century was the publishing by the French government of The Description of Egypt, which included details about the architecture, monuments, natural life and population of Egypt.

As you can see, Orientalism is deeply rooted in the European history, and has had quite an influence on the Western world over the years.

Orientalism and Art – Oriental Influences in British and French Art

Although the Muslims that lived in the Middle Ages in Spain have been depicted by the artists of the Medieval and Renaissance times, the Orientalism has become an art theme in the 19th century. The first artists, supporting the French imperialism, tried to show the East as a backward and lawless culture that was in need of the French rule.

But the most popular genre scenes, which caught the western attention, were the depiction of harems. The word Harem comes from the Arabic haram that means “which is forbidden”. As it was difficult for westerns to experience for themselves these traditions, a lot of artists used their imagination to capture a harem scene: an erotic setting, evoking a sense of cultivated beauty and pampered isolation, with luxuriant decorated interiors, filled with female slaves and concubines, some of them with western features.

Another preferred scene was the Turkish Bath, where the western artists, using the exotic Orient theme, could paint naked women, setting free their own erotic fantasies. Further, we find eastern influences in the architectural motifs, furniture, decorative arts and textiles, all very appealing to the European elite.

French Orientalism

Napoleon’s court painters started to use the Orient theme, after his campaign in Egypt – especially Baron Gros, in his most famous paintings: Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa in 1804 and the Battle of Abukir in 1806, where he included, apart from the emperor, many Egyptian figures.

Since exotic was perceived as colorful and sensual in those times, French artists like Eugene Delacroix and Jean-Leon Gerome incorporated the Islamic culture in their paintings. Gerome also popularized different themes, the bashi-bazouk or the Turkish mercenary soldier, used by various artists like Charles Bargue. Other artists created paintings with themes from history, depictions of military life, or scenes of quiet domesticity, maternity.

British Orientalism

Some British artists used the eastern art influence in their Christian-themed paintings. The Finding of the Christ in Temple from 1860, by William Holman, has an Orientalist theme, while another painting, The Scapegoat, following the Book of Leviticus, is set around the shore of the Dead Sea, where he actually started to paint it.

John Frederick Lewis lived in Cairo for a period of time, when he depicted scenes of Egyptian life. Unlike other artists, his accent was on realism, painting a careful and loving representation of the Islamic architecture, furnishing and costumes. Even in his harem scene, he avoided nudity and tried to show the beauty of the Islamic women, glowing with moral healthiness. Other artists focused mainly on depiction of landscapes, like desert scenes.

It can be said that Orientalism was a bit controversial, but it has surely enriched the European art.

Orientalism – What Is It All About?

The word Orient has its roots in the French language (Oriens), which means eastern part of the world, from where the sun rises. However, orientalism has a slightly different meaning than one might imagine at first sight. The term refers to the influence of the Eastern cultures on the Western world. Whether it is found in the works of designers, writers or artists, it brings a certain mystique that the only oriental culture can provide.

The term started to be widely used during the 19th century, when French artists, travelling to the Far East, started to include different artistic elements into their work, inspired by what they have seen and experienced there. Nowadays, it mainly refers to the Middle East cultures, in particular orientalist painting literature.

Here are some key areas where Orientalism has left its mark over the years:


Oriental themes could be found in the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Art. The same influence can be traced in the biblical scenes. The Venetian Renaissance had its inspiration for the beautiful paintings and prints mainly from the Ottoman Empire.

Literature and Music

Although we find eastern influence in their work, literature authors are not called orientalists, mainly because few of them are specialized in Oriental Topics.

 The first step towards Orientalism in literature can be attributed to Antoine Galland, who, in 1704, published the first translation of the Arabian Nights. Another early milestone was the Persian Letters in 1721 by Montesquieu. Orientalist literature is usually romanticized and paints a rather false image of the East. An example is the poem entitled Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, where the author presents an atmosphere which is both mysterious and supernatural.

 The famous Mozart was inspired by the interesting cultures of the East in some of his work, like the Abduction from the Seraglio. On the same train of thought, we should mention the Turkish music influences we can clearly see in the finale of the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven.


It’s normal that once the West started to colonize the East, a lot of ideas, including religious ones, migrated back to the West, where they have influenced this aspect of life as well. The Theosophical Society, formed in New York 1875, was studying Eastern religions, like Buddhism, Hinduism and Cabala, and spread those religious ideas across the west, where they enjoy quite a lot of popularity.