Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, MA



Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930


Harem girls in the bath house and hookah smokers in the café, spice merchants calling in the bazaar and turbaned warriors camped at the oasis: these are among the stereotypes of an imaginary Orient that American artists and entrepreneurs have conjured up for a broad public.

The rich history of this American Orientalism will be the subject of "Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930," a traveling exhibition organized by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, on view there from June 11 to September 4, 2000. Far broader than any previous museum show devoted to this topic, Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures breaks new ground in drawing on the expertise of scholars specializing in Islamic art and culture to look at the Orientalist attitudes in American art. Led by Holly Edwards, author of The Genesis of Islamic Architecture in the Indus Valley, the curatorial team traces America's images of the exotic and erotic Middle East from the high-art era of John Singer Sargent's Fumée d' Ambre Gris to the popular-art era of Rudolph Valentine in The Sheik. (left: John Singer Sargent, Fumée d' Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas, 54 3/4 x 35 11/16 inches, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts)

Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures presents approximately one hundred paintings, works of decorative art, sheet music and illustrations, advertisements, Shriner memorabilia, photographs, high fashion, and film clips. Through these objects, many of which are rarely seen even in reproduction, the exhibition traces the changing features of American Orientalism over the decades. The exhibition demonstrates how elite American artists and their patrons, in an increasingly urban, industrialized, and expansionist America, made use of Orientalist cliché, defining itself against the luxury and decay of an imagined Orient; and how, beginning with the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, Orientalism blossomed in American advertising and popular culture.

Following its presentation at the Clark Art Institute, Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures will travel to the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore (October 3 - December 10, 2000) and to the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina (February 3 - April 22, 2001).

According to Michael Conforti, Director of the Clark Art Institute, "I know that audiences of all kinds will find this exhibition both visually compelling and provocative. Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures crosses disciplines to explore a complex theme: how one culture--that of mercantile, Protestant America--perceived and represented another. It is this entanglement of Orientalism and American identity that the exhibition ultimately addresses. The Clark is ideally situated to organize this exhibition. Our collection boasts major Orientalist paintings from the nineteenth century, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme's Snake Charmer and Slave Market, as well as for important holdings in American paintings and decorative arts. The Clark also builds on its dual mission as a research center as well as an art museum in addressing a project as provocative as this one." (right: Thomas Hicks, Portrait of Bayard Taylor, 1855, oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC)

The term "Orientalism" has been in use at least since the middle of the nineteenth century. ("This is Orientalism," wrote an essayist in the Knickerbocker in 1853, calling up images of palm trees and azure skies, "not as it is, but as it swims before the sensuous imagination.") More recently, the concept has gained political currency, as scholars and critics have stressed the colonialist role of Orientalism. By examining the woefully neglected topic of Orientalism in the American visual arts, Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures seeks to foster a more expansive and better nuanced understanding of this many-faceted phenomenon. (left: Gertrude Venderbilt Whitney in Near Eastern Costume, c. 1913, Photographer: Baron de Meyer, Courtesy of Linda and Duncan Irving)

Commenting on her approach to the exhibition, guest curator Holly Edwards says, "I am an Islamic art historian by training--an Orientalist. The roots of my academic identity lie somewhere in the legions of travelers, writers, artists, and thinkers of the nineteenth century who were intrigued by what they called the Orient. I have not glossed over their foibles and limitations, as I have sought to understand them better, as products of a particular era."


On View in Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures

The exhibition begins with images of the Orient by some of America's most important painters of the nineteenth century. Some, such as Frederic Edwin Church , treated this exotic terrain through the lens of a deep religiosity, as in Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Others--such as John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase (Moorish Warrior), Ehilu Vedder (The Egyptian Nile), and Albert Pinkham Ryder (Lone Scout)--conjured up fantasies of sensuality and adventure, often without leaving the studio. (right: Frederic Edwin Church, Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, 1870, oil on canvas, 54 1/4 x 84 3/8 inches, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the Enid and Crosby Kemper Foundation)

A different kind of Orientalism from that of the painters-an Orientalism in the decorative arts--flourished in the late nineteenth century, as the Aesthetic Movement drew inspiration from the sinuous line and saturated colors of the Islamic tradition. On view in Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures will be a small selection of treasures from Olana, Frederic Edwin Church's Moorish-style home on the Hudson. It was also during this period that some of the major American collections of Islamic art were assembled, including that of Edward C. Moore, the designer of the Saracenic Tea Service for Tiffany and Company, on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (left: Cordelia A. Plimpton, decorator, L. F. Plimpton, designer, Alhambra Vase, 1881, earthenware, 16 1/2 x 12 3/16 x 10 1/8 inches, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, Gift of the Women's Art Museum Association)

The World:s Columbian Exposition of 1893 marked the translation of American Orientalism into the vernacular. In the formal exhibition halls, visitors viewed the refined Orientalism of Eric Pape's painting The Site of Ancient Memphis or selected artifacts from Edward Moore's collection. But on the carnivalesque Midway, in attractions such as "The Streets of Cairo," fair-goers encountered live belly dancers and "Arab natives" tending donkeys and camels, as documented in J.W. Buel's commemorative album Magic City. From this moment on, Orientalism was a major feature of American popular culture. (right: Unidentified artist, Orient Delights Orient's Most Famous Sweets, c. 1920, 36 x 72 inches, housepaint on plywood, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. and Museum purchase made possible by Ralph Cross Johnson)

The advertising business, which burgeoned in the early twentieth century, used Orientalism to sell everything from tobacco (Fatima Turkish cigarettes) to the electric light bulb (Maxfield Parrish, Lamp Seller of Baghdad). Orientalism also spread to the music hall, the department store, and the new institution of the movie house. The exhibition will document this aspect of American Orientalism through paintings (Robert Henri, Salomé; John Sloan, Movies), cigarette packs and advertising, sheet music (Irving Berlin's "In My Harem"), Shriner materials, movie posters, and clips from films (The Sheik. The Thief of Baghdad, Lawrence of Arabia) shown in a specially built theater. (left: Unidentified artist, Fatima Sign (advertisement), 23 x 19 inches, Duke Homestead, Durham, North Carolina)


Catalogue of the Exhibition

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Clark Art Institute and Princeton University Press will publish a richly illustrated catalogue of approximately 250 pages, including essays by five internationally recognized scholars. The authors are Holly Edwards, who teaches at Williams College and at the Graduate Program in the History of Art at the Clark Art Institute; Oleg Grabar, professor emeritus at the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University, and author of The Mediation of Ornament and The Formation of Islamic Art; Steven Caton, professor of anthropology at Harvard University, and author of Lawrence of Arabia: A Film's Anthropology; Zeynep Celik, professor in the School of Architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and author of Displaying the Orient: Architecture and Islam at Nineteenth-Century World's Fairs; and Brian Allen, assistant director for curatorial affairs at the Clark, whose recent doctoral dissertation for Yale University focused on the Spanish subjects of American artist Washington Allston.

The catalogue, available in both hardbound and softcover editions, also includes a foreword by Michael Conforti, a chronology, and an extensive bibliography .

Read an illustrated review on this exhibition by in The City Review

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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