Mint Museum of Craft + Design

Mint Museum of Art

Mint Museum of Craft + Design

Charlotte, NC



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

February 03, 2001 - April 22, 2001


From the exotic high art of Henry Ossawa Tanner's pious Christ Appearing to Nicodemus to the popular film art of Douglas Fairbanks' campy magic carpet ride in The Thief of Baghdad, no one adapts and repackages elements of another culture quite like Americans.

America's version of Orientalism is presented in the exhibition Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930 at Charlotte, NC's Mint Museum of Art, February 3 through April 22, 2001. Organized by the Clark (Sterling and Francine) Art Institute, the exhibition presents approximately 100 paintings, decorative arts, sheet music, advertisements, Shriner memorabilia, photographs, fashion and film clips that demonstrate how Americans created an imagined Orient according to their collective needs and taste.

"People constructed an imaginary Orient intimately connected to their own needs," explained exhibition curator Holly Edwards. "Some people needed escape from the modern world. Some people needed religious inspiration. Some simply needed to have a good time."

The Orient, in this case, is a loosely defined geographical region extending from Moorish Spain through North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. The region came to represent, in the minds of both Europeans and Americans, an exciting, even illicit, alternative to the inherited norms of the Western tradition in art and daily life.

The exhibition is organized in two major sections. The first, from 1870 through 1893, was an era of rapid American industrialization. The increasing wealthy elite yearned for the trappings of Old World riches. They acquired oil paintings, Persian carpets, brass vessels and glazed ceramics. Luminaries like Louis Comfort Tiffany designed whole interiors evoking Islamic styles. His satinwood Moorish Desk, c.1885, is a show highlight. Outfitting the Victorian parlor meant displaying treasures like Edward C. Moore's Saracenic Tea Service, c.1888, designed for Tiffany and Company.

American painters of the time were scrupulously imitating Continental Oriental styles, but toning down such racy subjects as harem interiors and female bathing scenes, the erotic staple of French Orientalist art. French colonial views of Muslim Asia and North Africa were a mix of racial prejudice and an attitude of cultural superiority. Two exhibition examples are found in Jean-Léon Gérôme's The Slave Market and The Snake Charmer. Widely praised in their day, they were and still are both titillating and disturbing: a captive female submitting to a pre-auction examination and a bare bottomed boy entwined with an enormous python snake. The paintings portray an Orient of depraved men and passive, available women. Gérôme was a major, best selling artist and teacher of his day with many ambitious Americans studying under him. Like his student, Frederic Arthur Bridgman (The Siesta, c.1878 and The Bath, c.1890), many American painters customized subjects to more conservative American tastes. Landscape, architectural and biblical renderings proved popular. American preoccupation with the Islamic Orient was essentially a positive and embracing phenomenon, owing to the popular notion that America itself was the embodiment of the Promised Land. (Upper left: Frederic A. Bridgman, An Interesting Game; lower left: Frederic A. Bridgman, Fallahine and Child)

Painting highlights include John Singer Sargent's Fumeé d' ambre gris, a mesmerizing symphony in whites and beige depicting a beautiful and mysterious Moroccan woman; the extraordinary scale and dramatic character of Edwin Lord Weeks' Interior of the Mosque at Cordova; and the technical virtuosity of William Merritt Chase's The Moorish Warrior. Artists like Robert Swain Gifford , Ehilu Vedder, Samuel Colman and Sargent brought home canvases distinguished by vibrant, warm colors and exotic settings.

The second phase of Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures begins with the pivotal event that transformed American Orientalism into the raw material of mass communication and mass culture - the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. While the 27 million visitors to the world's fair viewed the refined Orientalism represented by Eric Pape's painting The Site of Ancient Memphis in formal exhibition halls, they were introduced to the "hootchy-kootchy" of live belly dancers on the "Streets of Cairo," the Fair's carnival Midway.

The legacy of the Fair was to move Orientalism into the vernacular and into the world of music halls, movie houses, advertising and department stores. Sears sold Turkish screens, Moorish rugs and pointed yellow slippers to decorate the smoking rooms of middle class America. Cigarettes were given Oriental brand names like Fatima, Omar, Mecca, Mogul and Camels. Songs like My Turkish Opal from Constantinople and Irving Berlin's In My Harem topped the charts.

Art became part of the sales pitch as Orientalist images were employed as a mark of quality and as a guarantee of pleasure, forbidden or otherwise. Maxfield Parrish, the well-known illustrator, graphic designer and muralist created The Lamp Seller of Baghdad for General Electric's Edison Lamp Works in a palette of luminescent colors. Oriental lamps, jewelry, candy, even Oriental condoms (Sheik), became the rage.

Oriental stereotypes became common parlance in fashion, entertainment and film. Rudolph Valentino achieved superstar status as The Sheik in becoming a metaphor for an Orient that existed only in the minds of movie moguls. Sex, once suppressed, was now out in the open and celebrated in both low and high art, as exemplified by Robert Henri's statuesque, good-time girl version of Salome. (left: Lowell Thomas poster)

"The Orient became a toy, a game, a required masquerade away from normal and real life," wrote Oleg Grabar of Princeton University's School of Historical Studies. "This is an Orient that has dominated the world of advertising until our own times and in much of the movie industry. Curiously poised between desire and repulsion, beauty and ugliness, it is an Orient that answers deep psychological and social needs."

A dramatic example of the widening gap between Orientalism and the Orient is found in the elaborate rituals of the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Founded in 1870, the Shriners by the 1920s were a hugely-popular national men's club. Convocations turned men who wore pinstriped suits and carried briefcases by day into knights of the desert, potentates dressed in fezzes, curly-toed slippers and carrying scimitars.

The most celebrated Arab impersonator of the time was T. E. Lawrence, a little known British officer, discovered and made famous by American reporter Lowell Thomas for his role in orchestrating the Arab uprising against the occupying Turks near the close of World War I. Thomas spent a lucrative five years on the lecture circuit, illustrated by promotion posters in the exhibition, telling the tale of the enigmatic Lawrence. (left: Advertisement for The Sheik)

"As Americans proceeded along their self-appointed path of 'progress,' they encountered rapid industrialization and urbanization, territorial expansion and economic upheaval," wrote curator Holly Edwards. "Victorian values were being eroded by the changes, and men and women both moved uncertainly toward the future. In this era of transformation, the Orient was a useful construct that enabled people both to revisit the past and affirm their values. It also offered opportunities to imagine, vicariously experience and ultimately incorporate new options into their lives. The Orient was both a tool for self-scrutiny and a foil for social change." (left: Rosewood Secretary, 1880, Collection of Margaret Caldwell and Carlo Florentino)

Click here for critical review references.

See our prior article on Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930 (4/18/00)

Read more Resource Library Magazine articles on Mint Museum of Art / Mint Museum of Craft+Design

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

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

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/27/11

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