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Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures:
Orientalism in America, 1870-1930
Edited by Holly Edwards

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2000, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to

Chapter 1


All cultures nurture myths and fantasies, wonderful paragons with qualities absent in one's own culture or else nightmarish visions of evil from which deliverance or protection is sought. Paragons of beauty or visions of evil were at times transformations of one's own past in a search for roots as models to imitate or to avoid, as memories to praise, venerate, or curse, as those foundation myths which, from time immemorial, defined and at times even justified the acts and beliefs of a nation or civilization. At other times, they were associated with different cultural realms altogether, as though the psychological need for myths could better be met by contrasting one's own world with different ones, with the "empires of evil" of recent political rhetoric or with all these "others" that have populated philosophical and sociological arguments since Jean-Paul Sartre's celebrated l'enfer, c'est les autres (hell is others) of over half a century ago. Whether recollections of beauty or evocations of evil, cultural myths and fantasies lend themselves to images—in order better to be publicized but also because they are in fact images (albeit initially only mental ones)—and are thus easy to transform into representations.

    The complexity of modern American culture is such that there are many "others" in its psychological makeup and that the "others" of some are the "us" of others. And it is in fact difficult to argue today for a single or even for a prevalent vision or myth about the past or about the rest of the world. Only in science fiction, with its extraterrestrials and space adventurers, do myths and fantasies exist that may be shared by all segments of American culture. As could be seen with reactions to more than one recent film or television program (the phenomenon is much rarer with books or magazine articles, whose audience is infinitesimal by comparison), one can almost always find a group that feels humiliated and offended by the visual portrayal of evil through some association with that group.

    Whether matters were really simpler in the past may be a matter for debate. But there is little doubt that, since the early nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, there has been a mythical world created (at least in part) and consumed by the dominant cultural streaks—European in their roots and Christian, primarily Protestant, in spiritual education—of the United States. To call this mythical world "oriental" is a bit of a misnomer, since India is hardly included and the Far East is part of a different story. But since Edward Said's memorable Orientalism, published in 1978, the identification of the Orient with the Near and Middle East and its Islamic extension into North Africa has been generally accepted. Factually and logically incorrect, the term has prevailed in this restricted sense and incorporates a vast fantasy of an Orient that is both a seminal creator (ex oriente lux, light comes from the east) and a threat from aliens with an "oriental" mind.

    This catalogue and the exhibition it accompanies explore several aspects of this "oriental" phenomenon in American art and popular culture. This brief essay offers a few remarks on the sources of the mythical world of a "Near Eastern Orient" and on some of the peculiarly American forms it took. Without claims of exclusivity, I have identified four impulses or processes that have contributed to its shape: Protestant search for the space of the biblical revelation; European aristocratic taste; popular culture as in freemasonry and other fraternal organizations; and the spirit of skeptical curiosity and adventure. In reality, the boundaries between these processes are never clear, and problems arise as soon as one tries to pin one of them down as the single explanation of a work of art or of an activity pertaining to the arts. In a deliberately vague fashion, the presentation of these impulses should be considered only as preliminary thoughts on more or less identifiable aspects of the creation of a very particular visual environment.

    The American landscape is covered with biblical references in the names given to rivers, mountains, cities, and villages, as the Promised Land of America often acquired its toponyms from those of God's promise to Israel. There probably is a geography and a chronological development of these place names that surely deserves to be better known, especially in contrast with Native American names or European transfers. And, as the great biblical scholar and explorer of Palestine Edward Robinson implied, his yearning for the specific places mentioned in the Old and New Testaments derived from the ways in which his childhood in Connecticut was infused with an imaginary knowledge of Palestine and its neighbors, Syria and Egypt, so essential in the unfolding of sacred history? While most of the Protestant impulse expressed itself within the boundaries of the United States, it also led to the organization of group pilgrimages, pious individual travels, often ill-fated settlements in Palestine itself in which the spirit of adventure and pious inspiration were often mixed, eventually to the major accomplishments of American Protestantism like the American University in Beirut, any number of medical and educational missions that endured until the middle of the twentieth century, and scholarly institutes like the American Schools for Oriental Research in Baghdad and Jerusalem.

    Leaving aside the remarkable results of this impulse in the creation of a brilliant American scholarship in biblical and, by extension, all Near Eastern studies of times before the Muslim takeover in the seventh century C.E., there occurred a fascinating encounter between the spirit of the New World and the spaces of a very traditional one entering, slowly, into its own form of modernity, whether within the Ottoman Empire, which included Palestine, or in the Egypt of Muhammad `Ali Pasha. Most of the time, the present was simply ignored. Dramatic representations of sacred history, remarkably few in number because of Protestantism's uneasy relationship to a religious imagery usually associated with Catholicism, hardly reflect an awareness of the Orient as it actually was or else are set in a routine Greco-Roman and classical setting. Descriptive sketches are common, especially of Jerusalem seen from the Mount of Olives (see cat. no. 2), which became a sort of cliché for travelers to the Holy Land and, in the late nineteenth century, a painter like James Fairman made a career out Of such representations. Others, like Edward Troye, were driven by the same basic impulse of a Protestant pious market, but they expanded their concerns beyond Jerusalem to the Palestinian countryside and to Damascus or Cairo. In nearly all instances, local inhabitants or "natives" are absent or shown in theatrically standard poses. This Protestant strand, mixed with others, eventually led to the much more complex personality of Frederic Church, and his creation at Olana exhibits his own mix of "oriental" and American impulses, which owes something to the association of an aesthetically satisfying space with the biblical message of a Promised Land as imagined by American Protestantism.

    A second impulse is easier to understand and to define, inasmuch as many of its features are still applicable today. Since the Middle Ages, and in ways which varied from period to period and area to area, the arts and habits of the Islamic Orient have been present in European, mostly aristocratic (or, at the very least, wealthy) taste. For many centuries, expensive items in fancy techniques like silk, inlaid metalwork, or carpet weaving came from the East. It can be argued that Islamic art was for centuries the luxury component of life in Christian courts or ecclesiastical establishments. Except for rugs, whose presence was consistent throughout the centuries, this component lost some power during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but it reappeared in the eighteenth century with the fascinating phenomenon of an "oriental" taste for exotic clothes, for luxurious interior decoration of private houses, and especially for collecting objects of art or curios of all sorts from the East.

    It is important to separate two strands in this impulse. One is exoticism, which creates forms; the other one is collecting, which gathers objects. Sometimes the two can be found together, as in a painting by William Harnett that exhibits an array of objects from Iran (fig. 1), but it is useful to establish a clear division between the two.

    Exoticism is a fascination with something alien which manages to enhance the pleasure of the senses, the comfort of daily life, or the image one projects of one's self. At some level, it can become—as it had with Jean-Léon Gérôme's paintings and with his American imitators, in Hollywood's wildest inventions, or in advertising—a more dubious form of sensual provocation and titillation. But, in endless movie houses, hotel lobbies, or even private homes, fancy tile or stucco decoration is meant to depict or reproduce, perhaps only to recall, the Alhambra or whatever antiquarian memory some designer happens to possess. Such are often Iranian motifs, relatively rare in general, but curiously present in the huge griffins at the entrance of the Sam Rayburn building in Washington, inspired by Achaemenid art. All these examples are in fact a continuation of the medieval European association of beauty with the ornament of the Islamic Orient.

    There are two much more successful expressions of this exotic impulse akin to, if not always derived from, Europe. One, earlier than the period covered by this exhibition, is the case of Washington Irving who, as a consular official in Spain, had been affected by the "Orient" of European Romanticism. He became fascinated by the Alhambra in Granada and transformed it into a romantic historic narrative, which is still a highly readable work of literature and which elaborates, in very tasteful ways, on the sensuous dream of a paradise-like setting. The other one is Louis Sullivan, the great midwestern architect who had acquired in Paris recent books describing Islamic architecture in Egypt and Iran and who transformed some of the design principles of the fourteenth-century madrasa of Sultan Hasan in Cairo for the composition and decoration of the Wainwright building and mausoleum, both in St. Louis. Both Irving and even more so Sullivan went much beyond exoticism into the creation of true works of art of their own (fig. 2). And much later, at the very end of the period discussed here, Frank Lloyd Wright would also, in his projects for Baghdad, be inspired by the "Orient," but within the very different context of his own architectural development.

    Collecting is a very different matter. It begins with a tourist's search for memorabilia and ends with a passion for certain categories of objects. Both exoticism and casual collecting had been present since the early nineteenth century, although systematic and thematic collecting did not really flourish until the appearance, late in the nineteenth century, of an art market. It is also important to recall that the artifacts available, legally or not, in the Islamic world included then, as they still do now, works of Greek, Roman, Assyrian, Sumerian, Hittite, and especially ancient Egyptian art. Works of Islamic art usually fell in the category of ethnographic artifacts and had not yet graduated to the status of art objects. In the shape of relatively recent rugs, old and new brass, ceramics, textiles, and "antiques" of all types, the Orient provided materials for the acquisitive instincts of rich men and women, and the wealth of American museums owes a great deal to all the pilgrims or simply curious travelers who brought back, as they still do, thousands of artifacts from the rich lands of the Islamic Orient. They enhance galleries and living rooms with items whose value lies primarily in being collectibles rather than in expressing something meaningful about the worlds that produced them.

    Whatever their wider consequences, the first impulse was limited to a highly educated group and the second to a wealthy one. The third impulse, on the other hand, is more difficult to identify and to explain, but it certainly had and still has a broader and more popular appeal. Its most interesting expression for our purposes is the symbolism and pageantry of American social clubs that has issued from freemasonry. By the end of the nineteenth century, they had adopted a consistent Near Eastern "oriental" coloring. Shriner halls, for example, bear the names of Syrian or Iraqi and Egyptian cities, the fez and the operetta-like attire of Zouave and spahi soldiers are used in parades and in ceremonies, while stars, crescents, and scimitars are included in the panoply of signs and symbols carried by members of these fraternal societies or printed on their literature. The sources of these developments lie in part in the mystical acknowledgment that truth and wisdom come from the East. But the interesting point is that this particular "East" is a simpleminded vision of the contemporary, Islamic East, as it was proclaimed and paraded, among other places, in the World's Fairs of the nineteenth century. It is in the latter that belly dancing made its appearance as a public performance and entered thereby into the ways of displaying the sensuous East. The Orient has become a toy, a game, a required masquerade away from normal and real life. This is the 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.

    The fourth attitude toward the Orient is that of the skeptic visitor, open-hearted or mean, curious yet unaffected, always critical rather than sympathetic. There is Herman Melville, fed on images of a beautiful Holy Land, yet discovering in it what he called the "unleavened nakedness of desolation." To be true, his own personal uncertainties about his faith may have affected his negative reaction to the world where that faith had been revealed and played out its drama. But no such uncertainties troubled Mark Twain during his long tour of Europe and the Middle East with some seventy middle-aged men. Only the Sphinx and the American consul in Beirut remained unscathed by Twain's characteristically good-natured, but often quite mean, amusement at everything he saw, from the peculiar behavior of his fellow travelers to the holy places, the landscape, or the natives he encountered. It is true, of course, that, even more than today, the occasionally greedy obsequiousness of tourist servicing and the constant presence of beggars were the only contact a visitor had with the inhabitants of foreign places. Yet, beyond the sarcasms, evenly spread over compatriots and natives, these accounts demonstrate little interest in the people, much more in monuments, especially pious or historical ones, although even they receive their fair share of criticism. The Orient only matters as providing illustrations for some significant moments in the long history that led to the American Promised Land, and its very misery is a demonstration of the latter's success. By itself, it was dirty and ignorant, even savage, without the redeeming values of commonly accepted artistic treasures found in Europe. There is no sense of aesthetic quality in the remains seen by Twain, with some exception for Ancient Egypt. And yet, in a fascinating description of the ways in which his fellow travelers bought local clothes wherever they went, Twain raves about how all of them "turned out" in Constantinople (Istanbul), dressing up in "turbans, scimitars, fezzes, horse-pistols, tunics, sashes, baggy trousers, yellow slippers. Oh, we were gorgeous," he exclaims. In fact, they must have looked like members of a fraternal order and, as Twain remarks, the yellow dogs of Turkey must have all died laughing at the sight of this motley company.

    This last episode ties together several of my impulses in the making of the fantasy world from the Orient: It is the Protestant search for the Holy Land, which explains why this group of men went on their tour ("We were at home in Palestine," writes Twain). Skeptical criticism is mixed with an exotic masquerade in local clothes, even though Twain himself may not have indulged in it. What is missing is the acknowledgment of quality that characterizes the exotic and collecting impulses. It may simply have been unstated in Twain's objective to amuse.

    Leaving aside skeptical and critical curiosity, which is rare, and an intellectual search for information, which is laudable but rarely appreciated by a culture as a whole, we are left with two broad thoughts to explain the American involvement with the "Orient," as it appears in the exhibition. One is that the Orient was the maker of a game to play, of ways in which one could acquire, for however short a time, another personality or another experience, both personality and experience being primarily sensuous and, at some extreme, desirable but forbidden. The other one is that it continued to provide, as it had for centuries, the texture of beauty for an appropriate setting for life. But the life to be led in that setting was regulated by rules other than those of the "Orient." The latter was always something "other," a past from which one has escaped or the theatrical performance of a slightly wicked vision of pleasure.

Chapter 2


Looking at The Snake Charmer by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (cat. no. 5) is an intense experience. Vivid and full of intriguing detail, it implies a titillating story. So seductive is the image, in fact, that many viewers have succumbed to a desire to touch the boy's naked body. As a result, the painting is now under a protective layer of glass. The visual seduction, moreover, is not confined to vicarious pleasures of the flesh. The unwary museum visitor is also enticed into thinking that the story is somehow "true," for such images seem to record reality as it presents itself to the naked eye. This, one might suppose, is what the Orient is really like. But what is the "Orient"? Who says it is "really" like that? And what agendas does it serve to make such claims?

    Because the painting invokes these complicated questions, it was chosen as the cover for Edward Said's book Orientalism, which analyzes the processes by which the West studies, describes, creates, and controls the "Orient," keeping it in a subordinate role by representing it in a demeaning light. While Said propounded his thesis in reference primarily to literary evidence, art historians extended his insights by considering the visual arts, most particularly nineteenth-century French paintings like The Snake Charmer. The ensuing scholarship has generated an increasingly nuanced appreciation of the imperialistic agendas, gender inequities, and racial prejudices that underlie such depictions of the erotic, exotic East and the processes of power that they make manifest.

    Graphic and dramatic images like Gérôme's Slave Market (cat. no. 4) and Moorish Bath (fig. 1) or Henri Regnault's Summary Execution (fig. 2) depict an Orient of naked harem girls and tyrannical despots, which served to fascinate, titillate, and ultimately flatter the nineteenth-century French viewer. Such pictures can only be understood with reference to France's protracted colonial machinations in North Africa, and to French cultural and visual traditions. France reduced the Orient to colony, concubine, and indolent heathen, betraying the complex attitudes of an entangled imperialist.

    This ideological stance was represented by means of a visual tradition based on the human figure. This mode of expression lends itself well to Orientalist attitudes and even fosters them, for in its rendering of "truth" in corporeal terms, it represents the world as an echo of the human self. The rest is "other." These are basic variables of Orientalism, and by extension, they often stand for aggregate selves such as empires and colonies.

    This visual language, moreover, enjoyed the cumulative credibility of antiquity and the Christian tradition, both of which often represented truth by means of the heroic and enshrined male body. It was thus well suited to Orientalist attitudes. It combined the power vested in cultural heroes with the voyeuristic potential of the nude female form to describe the hierarchies embedded in and propagated by the imperialistic milieu of France. Dignified by tradition and history, then, French Orientalist painting conveyed and extended the conviction that power and glory, first vested in the body of Christ, also resided in the body politic of France, while the Orient became the feminized and exotic vessel for colonial energies.

    Political circumstances and fundamental aesthetic principles operative in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century provide contrast and counterpoint to the French case. America had not completely shed its subordinate status as a former colony. It had no sustained relationship with the Orient (that is, with any political entity under that larger rubric), and its imperialistic activities were largely confined to the North American continent, where depredations on native peoples were rationalized as exploration and Manifest Destiny. Elites and aesthetes sought "refinement" abroad or equated it with imported artifacts and cultural traditions of greater antiquity than their own. In general, sober Protestants avoided representations of the human body, which were thought to be immodest and even idolatrous, choosing instead landscape as a vehicle for visual expression. Meanwhile, the body politic was virtually dismembered in the Civil War, a conflagration ignited in part by the atrocities of institutionalized slavery. Inevitably, Americans generated Orientalisms resonant with but quite different from their French counterparts.

    It would be impossible to understand the idiosyncrasies of American Orientalism without reference to France because of the unique cultural status France enjoyed at the time and the pedagogical dimension of that position. French artists, bureaucrats, and other citizens promulgated certain standards of art and culture, and the visual language they utilized was what many aspiring artists sought to master. They often learned it in Paris, at the École des Beaux-Arts and numerous independent ateliers. As a government-funded school of art and a wing of the establishment, the École epitomized the dominant visual culture in France. Gérôme, the painter of The Snake Charmer, was one of its most prominent teachers for the last half of the century, and he introduced students from many countries to this academic canon. Under his tutelage, fledgling artists were indoctrinated to the western art historical tradition and taught how to draw and paint the human figure with anatomical precision (fig. 3).

    Students of Gérôme who studied this peculiar visual language were quite diverse, and they painted pictures that bore the imprint of the teacher even as they betrayed other sensibilities. The painting of Osman Hamdi Bey, for example, exhibits many of the hallmarks of French academic painting (fig. 4): the ethnographic detail, the deft rendering of the human body, the balanced composition. Having studied with Gérôme as well as Gustave Boulanger, Osman Hamdi was well versed in the traditions of French Orientalism. Nevertheless, when he returned to his home in Ottoman Turkey, he chose not to depict despots and harem girls or nude women in the bath. Instead he presented decorous and elegant images of people seeking change and simultaneously suffering the impact of the West. His painting, in effect, was a way of "speaking back" to French artists intent on portraying the Orient in their own image (see Çelik essay, pp. 77-97).

    Similarly, the American painter Frederick Bridgman absorbed Gérôme's advice and criticism but nevertheless painted differently than his mentor (see Allen essay, pp. 59-75). His Siesta (cat. no. 6), a quiet reprise of the famous French painting Odalisque with a Slave (fig. 5), demonstrates his fluency in the French tradition, but, like Osman Hamdi, Bridgman imbued his work with a distinctive flavor. Eschewing the blatantly erotic, he invoked the Orient to describe a desirable world in which women are proper, beautiful, and reticent. This is Orientalism in an American mode.

    Clearly, there are many ways to represent the Orient, and each is subject to conditions of time and place. All of these images are partial and contrived; none is "true" or "accurate." Instead, they must be recognized as time-bound constructs, used to give shape to disorderly aspirations and cross-cultural perceptions. The term "Orient" itself was a construct, one that strategically homogenized and circumscribed diverse cultures and traditions for western convenience. I use it here, in echo of nineteenth-century parlance, to refer to the idea behind the imagery, not to validate its distortions or perpetuate its currency.

    Much of the material included in this exhibition, especially that dating from before the turn of the century, reflects the diverse perspectives and activities of a small but powerful cohort: the white male elites of the northeastern United States. As I construct a narrative of this material for exhibition purposes, it will perhaps seem that I am extending or condoning the status that these groups enjoyed at the expense of others. This is not my purpose. What I am assembling here, effectively for the first time, are simply the loudest voices within the dominant culture at a particular time and place. When I posit a worldly, wise France or an indoctrinated America, I am not intending to essentialize either country in terms of the privileged and powerful, but rather to acknowledge the inordinately large role that such individuals played and the ideological collusions that they shared. Indeed, there are many other voices to be heard before we understand the nuances and complexities of American Orientalism; Zeynep Çelik's essay in this catalogue, for example, amplifies the previously silenced voices of Ottoman women to complement the myopic stories told by the organizers of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. There is much more to be done along these lines.

    In the meantime and as an initial foray into the study of American Orientalism, this exhibition and essay attempt to trace a process by which a concept of the Orient was created by a few and then elaborated to many more throughout the United States. The exhibition begins with the gilt-framed paintings of the Hudson River school artist Frederic Church and effectively ends with a national cult figure, Rudolph Valentino, star of The Sheik. The story initially transpires in the Moorish smoking rooms of millionaires and continues in the cozy Turkish corners of middle-class parlors, assembled by means of judicious purchases from Sears Roebuck.

    Along the way, the focus shifts from "high" art to the media of mass production, reflecting what I see as the trail of Orientalist imagery through society and over time. I am not deliberately or inadvertently leaving out either the popular culture of the nineteenth century or the high art of the early twentieth century. There are a few examples of both included in the exhibition, which are intended to acknowledge the complex roots of mass media as well as the new directions that painting took after the turn of the century. For the present purposes, however, I am focusing elsewhere, in an effort to demonstrate the larger migration of Orientalist imagery from unique objects to mass-produced materials. In so doing, I am highlighting some basic trends in the visual evidence. While there obviously existed material manifestations of "popular culture" in the late nineteenth century (including illustrated books and magazines, simple advertisements, and engaging forms of public entertainment), early-twentieth-century Americans produced and were assaulted by a much more vivid and vast array, including photographs, color prints, pictorial advertisements, and movies. Orientalist imagery proliferated in this context of heightened visuality, and the locus of it simultaneously shifted. Thus, by the time advertisements doubled as colorful wall decorations in middle-class homes, and silent movies engaged the attention of the American public, there was no significant tradition of Orientalist painting left; indeed, it had already begun to wane by the time of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

    These diverse materials encompass a multifaceted process that I refer to as "Orientalism" throughout this essay. While this term was actually used in the mid-nineteenth century, our collective understanding of it was profoundly altered with the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism in 1978. Subsequent scholarly contributions have further nuanced its connotations and implications. In light of these developments, I have used "Orientalism" to refer to the myriad ways that people represent and employ the "Orient" for diverse personal, social, and cultural purposes. In my opinion, these purposes range from imperialism and denigration to celebration and nostalgia; possibilities are as various as individuals and circumstances. Orientalism is not a monolithic or static phenomenon but rather a conflicted and multivocalic process that can only be understood cumulatively and retrospectively. In talking about Orientalist visual imagery in this manner, then, it is critical to be specific about time, place, and players.

    In the case of American Orientalism, the period from 1870 to 1930 was complex and formative. It was a time when the United States emerged from the devastation of the Civil War and sought to join what were thought to be the "civilized" nations of the world. Political, cultural, and psychic horizons were expanding in relation to a variety of "others," including Native American peoples, France, and the Orient. As Americans proceeded along their self-appointed path of "progress,' they encountered rapid industrialization and urbanization, territorial expansion, and economic upheaval. 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 to envision the future. It allowed people to declare their convictions and affirm their values. It also offered opportunities to imagine, vicariously experience, and ultimately incorporate new options into their lives. Thus, the Orient was both a tool for self-scrutiny and a foil for social change.

    What distinguishes this period and this phase of Orientalism from earlier ones is the abundance of visual evidence of American attitudes? Prior to this time there had been literary evidence of American convictions about the Islamic world, but there was considerably less visual representation of the region. In the postbellum period and the early decades of the twentieth century, however, Orientalist imagery proliferated in the form of paintings, prints, decorative arts, advertisements, photographs, films, fashion, and a variety of performing arts. In part, this resulted from increased travel opportunities and expanding national horizons, but it was also indicative of the efflorescence of mass media and the development of a department store culture. From this explosion of imagery, people were assembling for themselves representations of the Orient that were increasingly vivid and varied.

    The images changed over time, subject to domestic needs and social pressures. In the decades after the Civil War, the Orient was conceived primarily as a traditional and monolithic culture in an unadulterated natural setting. As such, it was a distant screen upon which the Protestant narrative could be reenacted, American values could be projected, and nostalgia could be expressed. In paintings of the 1870s and 1880s, one is struck not by the exoticism of the imagery so much as its comfortable familiarity for a Victorian audience. Some images suggest a wistful review of what America once looked like; others seem to universalize the values of the dominant culture in America simply by presenting them in oriental garb. In effect, this Orient served to reassure nineteenth-century elites that everyone was or should be like them and that, if necessary, they were prepared to show how things should be done.

    As the century drew to a close, the Orient was remodeled for new consumers. The "real thing" was brought home and displayed in the form of live ethnographic exhibits at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Here, the Orient was constructed not as potentially like America but rather as demonstrably and thankfully different. "Realistic" villages from Egypt and Algeria, for example, were displayed along with other cultures of the world on the Midway Plaisance, and fair-goers visited them with a mix of curiosity and condescension. From the lofty vantage point of "civilized" man sailing around on the technologically superior Ferris wheel, this Orient was belittled and demeaned by anthropologists, fair organizers, and ultimately, the American public.

    Thereafter, in the early twentieth century, when women began to enjoy more social latitude and Americans were collectively and individually discovering "the body," the Orient was reimagined around sex. As a catalyst and surrogate for enacting desire, oriental imagery appeared on diverse consumer products and in the entertainment industry as the backdrop for new and titillating personal experiences. Such was the nature of the Orient in the collective imagination that it sustained this extraordinary variety of interpretations, fluctuating between being flatteringly like and reassuringly different, as echoes of self and incarnations of other.

    This exhibition offers an opportunity to correlate this new corpus of material evidence with a sophisticated analytical apparatus. This is extraordinarily difficult to undertake within the context of an exhibition catalogue, for one is faced with the rhetorical challenge of telling a new story in an accessible and self-conscious manner while simultaneously exposing its underpinnings—arguably mutually exclusive processes. In light of that difficulty, other essays have been included to complement this one, and extensive commentary has been embedded in catalogue entries in order to segregate the documentation of new materials from the theoretical consideration of their genesis and transformation. It is hoped that this structure will serve to highlight the implications of this material and identify opportunities for further research of diverse kinds.

    Clearly, there is evidence of Orientalist attitudes in the paintings, prints, and posturings of turn-of-the-century Americans. The diachronic arrangement of this material and its correlation with political and social developments suggest that visual Orientalism served as a preface to, or part of, the consolidation of the power that America sought in the emerging world order of the early twentieth century. Early imagery viewed the Orient, whereas subsequent renditions emphasized its inhabitants. Ultimately, it would appear that American Orientalism was essentially a therapeutic mechanism as well as a creative process whereby people might construct models of behavior and society and then move into the spaces of power that they had constructed.

    The material evidence of these processes stands in peculiar and significant relationship to the literary evidence, I think. Among the American Orientalist paintings in this exhibition, one does not find sanctimonious pictures of "indolent" or "childlike" natives or visions of lustful Turks, though one reads about such "Orientals" frequently in nineteenth-century literature. In fact, wherever we have adequate documentation to comment, it suggests that painters often went to the Orient presuming such stereotypes, but once there, they painted other things. In effect, they painted the settings for their own role-playing. While this role-playing takes the form of picturesque views and costume studies of "Oriental" players, it is also literally manifest in images of cross-cultural dressing and in the charged and ritualized masquerades of fashion, freemasonry, and world politics that transpired in the wake of increased world travel. The visual character of this material is important, for it provides a transition between word and action and enables the insertion of the self into a new worldview.


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