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The Lure of the East

Review by: Tyler Griffith University of Edinburgh

The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, Nicholas Tromans, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Nicholas Tromans’s edited volume, The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, represents one of the first major museum exhibitions to provide a thorough and scholarly approach to British Orientalist painting. The purpose of the volume is to explore the possible motivations, results, and interpretations of British painting in the Middle East roughly between 1800 and 1922, while tying the observations into broader considerations of the nature and history of British culture. As it represents the works of multiple scholars operating in various academic milieux, the volume does not have a central thesis per se, but instead aims to provide insights into a wide variety of themes. The final result is a particularly versatile text likely to appeal both to professional researchers as well as non-specialist enthusiasts.

The analysis of the paintings falls into five broad categories: portrait, genre, landscape, harem, and religion. These categories seem particularly suited to reflect the dynamics of the paintings themselves, while simultaneously providing relevant foci for modern debates and interpretations. Each of the five categories has a section of around 30 pages devoted to it, typically including about 18 full-page, full-colour, high-quality photographic reproductions as well as exemplary details and smaller images throughout the text itself. The volume’s excellent meta-textual elements include detailed endnotes with a wide range of valuable sources, a table of ‘key political events’ from 1792-1923, suggestions for further reading, artists’ biographies, a list of exhibited works, and an admirably compiled index. This reader felt very comfortable and informed while navigating the text and felt quite equipped to conduct further research on a broad number of topics.

The section essays themselves are highly engaging. In her essay on orientalist portraiture, for example, Christine Riding explores the fascinating question as to why, between 1788 and 1820, approximately 45% of all works at the Royal Academy exhibition were portraits. Chiefly structuring her argument in terms of participation, performance, and power, Riding offers numerous insights into the motivations and implications of ‘cultural cross-dressing’ (p. 48) and the repeated appearance of Europeans in Eastern dress. In doing so, she takes readers through a period of British travel-portraits spanning from William Fielding, 1st Earl of Denbigh (1633/6, portrait by van Dyck) to Augustus John’s famous image of Lawrence of Arabia of 1919. While challenging some traditional interpretations of orientalist portraiture, she does not entirely dismiss them; rather, she invites readers to engage in a more holistic approach to understanding the intricacies of cultural exchange in the British-Oriental context.

The remaining four section essays were written by Tromans himself. Section two, Genre, posits that ‘[g]enre painting—scenes of anonymous everyday life—was central to British art in the early nineteenth century’ (p. 78), and moreover that ‘[i]t was the format through which modern society sought to describe, analyse and understand itself’ (ibid.) Tromans addresses a wide range of important nineteenth-century genre scenes, with a special emphasis on the interplay between traditional textual accounts of the east—William Edward Lane is the key example—and the emerging tradition of visual accounts of the same societies. The result is an integrated consideration of how ‘everyday life’ and the ‘exotic adventure’ mingled during the British nineteenth century.

Section three focuses on nineteenth-century orientalist Landscape painting. One of the central observations is that the cultural status of the Eastern landscape is fraught with multiple meanings: it is simultaneously the gateway to Classical antiquity, the gateway to the Christian past, the exotic setting of the Muslim present, and the exploitable resource of the Colonial future. Tromans addresses these ambiguities and their relationship to British culture, noting such things as how previously exotic cities such as Tangier become ‘an Edwardian resort with as much in common with San Sebastian or Cannes as with the Middle East’ (p. 109), and how the communication of ‘a sense of place’ (p. 106-7), achieved through painting, becomes in itself an object of cultural and commercial exchange.

One of the most provocative sections is section four, which explores the themes of Harem and Home. As the ‘defining symbol of the Orient for Europeans’ (p. 128), the harem was continually revisited by nineteenth-century artists in their attempt to capture the essence of eastern culture. One of the most noticeable—and problematic—facets of these visual depictions of the harem is the reappearance of white European women as models. Far from assuming a simple erotic explanation of the fascination with the harem, Tromans points out numerous interplays between gender, society, and illusion and the facts they reveal about British culture of the time.

The fifth and final section, Religion, demonstrates that the notion of religion was not confined to purely theological concerns. For the average British artist or tourist, ‘who typically had a notion of religion, race and territory as all being naturally coterminous’ (p. 163), the Orient offered exciting (though sometimes problematic) opportunities to explore the notions of culture, race, and politics, all moderated by the umbrella of religion. The intermingling of various Christian traditions, as well as Jewish and Muslim traditions, provided ample ground for the creativity of artists, and Tromans argues that paintings throughout the nineteenth century ‘set multiple reflections working between East and West so that we end unsure of where the division lies’ (p. 172).

The Middle East—or what nineteenth-century Britons were more likely to know as the Near East—naturally has special interest for Western scholars today. The Lure of the East admirably confronts the relationship of nineteenth-century orientalist painting with the East-West preoccupations of the modern world. Two essays in particular, ‘Seduced by “Samar”, or: How British Orientalist painters learned to stop worrying and love the darkness’ by Fatema Mernissi and ‘Regarding Orientalist Painting Today’ by Rana Kabbani highlight essential cultural interconnections between the ‘European’ west and ‘Exotic’ east and raise interesting questions about the relevance of this perceived dichotomy.

On the whole, this reader greatly enjoyed Tromans volume and would highly recommend it to other readers. After completing the work, one feels that he or she has got not only a thorough scholarly acquaintance with nineteenth-century British orientalist painting, but also feels more confident in asserting its overarching relevance to British culture at a much larger scale. Part history and part connoisseurship, part philosophy and part current events, this volume admirably sparks interest and fulfils expectations.

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