Landscape Art


How did the increase in travel and tourism affect the production of Orientalist landscape painting in the latter half of the nineteenth century?

The term Orientalist - meaning someone who is knowledgeable about Oriental people, their languages, history, customs, religions and literature - also applies to Western painters of the Oriental world. For these artists - whose numbers grew rapidly in the early nineteenth century - the Orient meant first of all the Levant. It then included Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and the North African coast. Only a few particularly adventurous artist-travellers went to Arabia, Persia or India; as for the countries in the Far East, they were virtually closed to Westerners until the end of the nineteenth century. There was no school of Orientalist painting; the pictures were linked thematically rather than stylistically. Technique, especially in the treatment of light and colour, evolved with each decade, as the artist's experiences grew. (1)

For many, Orientalism is essentially an art-historical term. It often has a restricted meaning, relating to the painting of a specific group of nineteenth-century and mainly French artists who took North Africa and the Middle East as their subject matter. Orientalism came under critical attack from the 1870s, as Impressionism superseded Realism, but it had a remarkable power of survival: in the 1880s and 1890s it re-established itself as an exceptionally popular form, surviving until the inter-war years. (2)

Since antiquity, the Orient to Europeans was a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and remarkable experiences. The concept of Orientalism as kinds of awareness - aesthetic, social, economic, religious and historical - in particular the attempts to evoke an exotic, sensual world and depict unfamiliar terrain, light and colour as well as unusual customs and costumes. (3)

The 19th century saw the birth of popular tourism. The building of the railways from the 1830s; he increase in leisure time and disposable income for middle-class and then working-class people; and not least, the development of new organisational forms, such as Thomas Cook's celebrated invention of the package tour: all these achievements of Victorian modernity made recreational travel swift, cheap, safe and accessible to the multitude, where previously it had been the preserve of an elite. (4) As the number of steamships and railway networks grew, so more and more painters joined the streams of people investigating, exploring, analysing or just meandering in the East. These artists were primarily French and British; for other European countries, without major empires, the Orient was remote. The French artists were for the most part attached to military, scientific or diplomatic missions sent to countries around the Mediterranean basin and to Persia. The English concentrated mainly on Egypt (the critical communication link in the overland route to their Indian Empire) and on Palestine. (5)

On one hand there were a few practical guide books, such as The Ionian Islands, Greece, Turkey, Asia Minor, and Constantinople, inviting readers to send in records of their own travels to allow optimum objectivity in future editions. On the other was for example Alexander Kinglake's bestseller of the 1840s, Eothen (='Oriental'), a deliberately cavalier account of a young Englishmen's inviolate self-satisfaction even under the pressures of Oriental travel. Its clear message was that reading about the Orient was more entertaining than going there. (6) However, more English artists than of any other nationalities ventured alone into desolate places. The association between the Bible and the Orient were very important for Victorian painters such as David Wilkie, Holman Hunt or Frederick Goodall. They travelled primarily to find authentic backgrounds for their Biblical subjects, convicted that the gestures and attitudes of the people they saw were survivals from ancient times. The religious revivalism in Victorian England also made Biblical themes set in pharaonic Egypt popular, and Edward Poynter, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edwin Long painted elaborate historical compositions remarkably like those found in early Hollywood films. (7)

Among the more important artists, some were nearly specialists; others devoted a large proportion of their oeuvre to the Orient; while a few turned to oriental subjects only briefly. Some never visited the East; others travelled extensively; and a few settled for longer periods. Sometimes, oriental subjects were painted before they went; paintings and sketches were made on the spot, but large numbers were worked up after they had returned. (8)

The British Orientalists were never indulged in the grandiose gestures of Delacroix and other French artists. Their approach was generally more pragmatic and low key. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Orientalist canon was influenced more by the proximity of the Islamic Near East, its ancient, biblical and classical associations, and the increasing tourist potential of the Mediterranean region than by direct imperial rule. Most of the well known eighteen and nineteenth century figures associated with India, the Pacific and Africa were topographical, architectural or taxonomic artists, illustrating landscape, exotic structures, and botanical or zoological specimens, without any pretension to the high art of the salon. They have to be positioned either in the scientific tradition of the oceanic explorations of the Enlightenment or the extension of the tradition of picturesque water-colouring, engraving and lithography. Many worked within a tradition of scientific draughtsmanship, illustrating natural phenomena (including atmospheric conditions). They also searched for characteristic or typical landscapes to illustrate the geographical varieties of the globe. None of these artists enjoyed the fame, the powerful dealers and rich patrons of the Orientalists. Their work was rendered familiar through illustrated books. (9)

During the nineteenth century the British surveyed cities and landscapes across the Middle East in circumstances that frequently had military contexts. Some of the professional artists became surveyors in a modest way. Wilkie helped to measure the depth of the Dead Sea, Roberts drew plans of the Ancient Egyptian structures he visited to facilitate his later pictures of them, and Hunt made a ‘map-like sketch' of Jerusalem from the Dome of the Rock in 1855. The relationship of these images to power emerges through their apparent intimacy and objectivity. (10)

Like most travellers in the Middle East today, early 19th-century travellers usually had extremely limited contact with the societies they visited and wrote about. Their European clothes made them appear strange and unattractive, and set them apart from the Middle Easterners they moved among. They rarely lived with local families, which would have been one of the best ways of understanding their surroundings. Rather, the people they were most likely to get to know were those whose business was to deal with travellers - coachmen, boatmen and hoteliers. Their most constant companions were the ever-present local interpreter-guides, the dragomans. (11)

For many painters there was a certain element of “gathering” exotic subjects for their paintings. Very often it was a real sense of excitement and adventure that drew artists back to the Orient. In Egypt, travelling was relatively organized and easy - studios could even be found in Cairo - where, as in Alexandria, Constantinople, and Algiers, the European community had comfortably settled itself. Once out on their own, however, it was very necessary for Europeans to wear Oriental dress. Although this was really for safety reasons, it did add to the romance. Those artists who, preferring not to work in premise abroad, returned to Europe to produce their paintings, made extensive use of Islamic works of art and Oriental costumes as studio props. Frederick Goodhall even went so far as to have local sheep and goats shipped home to ensure authenticity in is Biblical scenes of rural life. (12)

Most artists adopted rapid sketching techniques, so that with the help of sketches made on the spot, the painting could be recollected and recreated in the tranquillity of the studio. Moreover, the particular character and speed of execution of water-colours made them particularly amenable to eastern subjects. Water-colouring was invariably seen as a distinctively English technique, and some French and Italian artists sought English masters to tutor them. The East helped to extend the incidence and language of the water-colour. (13)

European artists flocked to North Africa and the Middle East because these new regions were relatively close. They represented an extraordinary range of ancient cultures, the origins of several world religions, including their own, and dramatic topographical, architectural and cultural features. Some of the same excitement of discovery and displaced sense of familiarity must have impelled the purchasers of their work. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt had not only launched European colonization of the Middle East, but also attracted a flow of scientists, scholars, academics and adventurers eager to see for themselves what had previously been largely a subject of speculation. As far as painters were concerned, the Orient remained the subject of travellers' reports until the 1830's. Then, suddenly, artistic interest and enthusiasm bloomed as French colonial ambitions in North Africa were renewed and Turkish domination of the Near East declined. With travel now faster, easier and safer, artists could mount expeditions to gather material, without investing excessive amounts of time or risking any extreme danger. Moreover, they could count on a growing cadre of travellers to provide patronage and support for the work they produced. British artists were the leaders in this sort of endeavour. David Roberts, William Muller and J.F. Lewis all made expeditions to the Near East in the 1830's and they were followed by their American counterparts, Sanford Gifford and Frederick Church, in the 1860's. As physical accessibility to the Orient increased so did the aesthetic of realism, based on objective representations of the external world. Lewis spent a decade in Cairo, living in great style in a large Mamluk house in the Ezbekiya quarter, and his familiarity with the surroundings of privileged Egyptian society is evident in his details of setting and costume: luminous stained glass, the shadows cast by the mashrabiya and the textures of cottons and silks. The evocative traces of ancient civilization also captured the attention of Orientalist artists - most notably the Scottish painter David Roberts. Roberts' journal entry for October 19, 1838, records his emotions on first seeing Dendera: "I felt sad and solitary... overcome with melancholy reflections on the mutability of human greatness and the perishable nature of even the most enduring works of human genius." Roberts, one of the first independent British artists to make the journey to the area, spent 11 months going up the Nile, seeing Cairo, the Sinai Desert, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. As he travelled, he sketched nearly every monument of note on the way, many from several viewpoints and from these accomplished sketches created oil paintings and lithographs that today offer an almost archaeological record of the state of monuments in the mid-18th century. (14)

While Roberts was able to depend upon his architectural motifs to provide structure to his compositions, those who came after him, such as William Holman Hunt and Edward Lear, often found it awkward to fit what they saw into the conventional formats of European landscape painting. It seemed that the Oriental landscape had to be broken down into geometric blocks in order to accommodate the needs of the picture, or else it was stretched lengthwise to make panoramic views whose broad compass compensated for the absence of a conventional composition. (15)

Roberts's architectural structures pull the viewer not only into an alternative Oriental world over which the beholder's gaze is flatteringly constructed as magisterial, but sometimes inside the buildings themselves so that there is a panoramic sense of being entirely embraced by the views. By bringing the spectator so intimately into these exotic spaces, Roberts's pictures were able to give audiences the impression of really comprehending and contemplating them from afar. Roberts was aware of the development of Egyptian tourism, of which he himself was forming a part. In a watercolour of the Valley of the Kings Roberts depicts in the foreground a party of tourists admiring the view. In the middle distance is a further group of figures at the entrance to a tomb. Roberts allowed the mid-Victorian public to feel they had a clear picture of Egypt, a clearer picture indeed even than those living near the ruins - clearer especially than those impoverished Egyptians who had built humble dwellings up against the ancient structures, prompting many a contemptuous tourist's remark oh how the mighty civilisation of the pharaohs had fallen. The modern Arabs often shown in the Oriental landscape (frequently desert-dwelling Beduin), present in part to provide a measure of scale, do also generally seem to be entirely oblivious to the beauty and history around them, in contrast to the admiring Western tourists in the Valley of the Kings. (16)

The conventions of European landscape painting were equally challenged, disciplined and expanded through translation into the Orient. David Roberts was the pioneer here. Having to dispense with the formulate for generating landscape compositions defined in the seventeenth century by Claude, Rubens and others, Roberts turned to particular architectural monuments to structure his views, closely observing the buildings, so that their forms would frame and compose the picture, not just supply the central motif. When architecture was not the main focus and natural landscape was the interest of the painter, the problem of framing the composition often led to the elongation of the picture. British Orientalist landscape had it seems an aspiration to the panoramic, and indeed Ali Behdad, in his book Belated Travellers, suggests that “The tendency to have a wide angle of vision is symptomatic of the modern Orientalists fragmentation”, that is, a fear of missing the meaning of the landscape led to a hovering up of as much of it as possible. The original panoramas - vast canvases turned into a circle to engulf the viewer, invented in Britain in the 1790s - often featured Oriental cities. (17)

Romantic landscape imagery in Britain famously aspired to capture the immediacy of experience. The more intense the experience, it often seemed, the less need there was to travel to see more. People in early nineteenth-century Britain searching out images of distant lands in illustrated travel literature generally had to make do with images that were already second-hand, retaining little or no immediacy. Landscape painting was traditionally a highly refined art. Those who had actually travelled to, and sketched in, faraway places were, however, far more likely to be connected to military or engineering projects than to the art world. The solution was therefore often to combine the two kinds of artists, the London professional artist translating the raw material of the soldier, surveyor or architect into something publishable (the professionals' drawings then being reproduced by yet another kind of specialist, the engraver). David Roberts and John Frederick Lewis, for example, were both introduced to Middle Eastern imagery through this route. But soon these two painters were themselves heading East, seeking direct experience of places they had represented only vicariously. From the later 1830s the professional artists take Orientalism into their own hands. (18)

Edward Lear devoted his career to landscape painting. Lear left England in 1837, and became a wanderer for the rest of his life. After living in Rome for several years he began to explore countries off the beaten track, the Ionian islands and the Greek mainland, Turkey, Albania, Malta, Egypt, the Sinai desert, Palestine and India and Ceylon. (19)

Lear's most extensive Middle East tour took place in 1858 travelling through Egypt and Palestine, visiting Petra, Beirut and Damascus. Lear's paintings of these cities are probably the most dramatic general views made by a Victorian artist, although he never had time to explore any of them in detail. Lear's 1873 view of the acacia-lined road built as a European-style avenue linking Cairo to the Giza is the ultimate in geometric Victorian Orientalist landscape painting. When working on his sketches of deserted city's remains, he wrote to his sister: “I had expected a great deal, but was overwhelmed with extra surprise and admiration at the truly beautiful and astonishing scenes. The whole valley is a great ruin - temples - foundations - arches - palaces - in inconceivable quantity and confusion; and on two sides of the valley are great cliffs, all cut into millions of tombs - magnificent temples with pillars, - theatres etc. so that the whole place is like magic...All the cliffs are of a wonderful colour - like ham in stripes; and parts are salmon colour.” (20)

Thomas Seddon was closely associated with Pre-Raphaelite painters, and the few pictures he painted of the Near East before his death belong more in feeling and technique to this group than to the mainstream Orientalists. He left for Cairo in 1853, where he met Edward Lear, and experienced traveller. He also came across Richard Burton, a linguist and Arab scholar who, brilliant and intolerant of convention and restraint, was one of the most fascinating people of his time. In 1854 Seddon left Cairo for Palestine in the company of Holman Hunt. While he lacked Hunt's high-minded reasons for visiting the Holy Land, Seddon, by painting biblical landscapes, was atoning for a taste for pleasure and dissipation which he had formed in Paris. It was on this journey that Hunt painted his famous symbolic picture, The Scapegoat, at which he worked away in the blazing sun. Seddon set about organising a private exhibition of his works in London. These were highly praised by the theorist John Ruskin, who raised a fund after Seddon's death to offer his key painting, Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehosophat from the Hill of Evil Counsel to the nation. After his death, the Society of Arts held an exhibition of his works in London in 1857, on which occasion Ruskin gave a speech saying that Seddon was “the purest Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter.” (21)

The landscapes between the cities, and especially desert areas, presented the problem of disorientation. With no reliable detailed maps, and with individual place names - in languages that British travellers anyway had trouble transcribing - varying between different local communities, artists often were perplexed in putting words to their images. Lear, a wonderfully original poet as well as painter, habitually made elegant inscriptions around the lower parts of his drawings, recording colour impressions and details of his location. (22)

Many British artists, especially those under the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism, looked carefully at the coloured shadows of dawn and dusk. These effects were most striking of all in the desert, which often appears not as dangerous, but as a beautiful wilderness containing places resonant with the ebb and flow of civilisations, and where night brought a particular beauty special to the region. For the Pre-Raphaelites Hunt and Seddon, the Middle East had provided the opportunity to push further the practise of painting shadows in colours from the violet end of the spectrum. Many images represent daybreak or sunset, in order to take advantage of the wonderful colours of the landscape at those times. A special category of Orientalist landscape watercolour painting focused upon moonlit scenes. (23)

The desert imagery draws on fascination with the traditional Bedouin ways in the Sahara and the Arabian desert. Here there are countless affectionate equestrian scenes of horsemen and cameleers watering their mounts, resting with them beneath oasis trees and even enjoying (almost certainly imaginary) dancing maidens. In the “desert action” subgenre, Orientalists painted dramatic fantasias of men galloping on horse or camel across the sands, often to attack a trade caravan or raid a rival tribe's camp. (24)

Every Western painter arriving in the Orient immediately saw its immense artistic potential. Thackeray wrote: “There is a fortune to be made by painters in Cairo...I never saw such a variety of architecture, of life, of picturesque, of brilliant colour, of light and shade. There is a picture in every street, and at every bazaar stall.” Despite this ready wealth of potential pictures, not every painter had the technical ability or inventive gift to express what he saw. Most artists had been trained to draw and paint in studio or museum conditions. Painting in natural light was still considered an unconventional and ill-advised undertaking, and few Western artists attempted it, apart perhaps from the occasional watercolour in preparation for a studio picture in oils. But the artists who painted in the East found themselves as a matter of course painting out of doors. It was therefore in the Middle East and North Africa that this major shift in traditional artistic practise took place. We could say that the awareness of the properties of strong natural light and its translation into paint was the most prominent contribution of Orientalist painting to the art of the nineteenth century. (25)

The nineteenth-century Orientalists were not culturally radical and technically conservative; they were culturally conservative and technically innovative. Far from offering an artistic programme for imperialism, they were finding in the East ancient verities lost in their own civilisation. Many of them set out not to condemn the East, but to discover echoes of a world they had lost. For their twentieth-century counterparts this lost world involved hidden emotional states, the psychological drama of abstraction or of designs of whirling movements or deconstructed geometrical elements. (26)


* L. Thorton, The Orientalists, Painter-Travellers,, p. 4

* J. M. MacKenzie, Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts (UK, Manchester University Press, 2004), p. 43

* M. J. Taboroff, The Orientalists

* P. Long, N. J. Palmer, Tourism and Cultural Change, Royal tourism: excursions around monarchy (Channel View Publications, 2008), p. 26

* Thorton, The Orientalists, Painter-Travellers, p. 6

· N. Tromans, The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting (London, Tate Publishing, 2009), p. 10

* Thorton, The Orientalists, Painter-Travellers, p. 6

* MacKenzie, Orientalism: History, Theory and the Art, p. 44

* MacKenzie, Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts , pp. 51-52

* Tromans, The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting, pp. 104-105

* Tate Britain, British Orientalist painting - The Orient in Perspective

* Thorton, The Orientalists, Painter-Travellers, pp. 8-12

* Tromans, The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting, p. 17

* Taboroff, The Orientalists

· Tate Britain, British Orientalist painting - The Orient in Perspective

* Tromans, The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting, pp. 103-105

* Tromans, The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting, p. 17

* Tromans, The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting, p. 102

* Thorton, The Orientalists, Painter-Travellers, p. 126

* Tromans, The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting, pp. 106-106

* Thorton, The Orientalists, Painter-Travellers, p. 164

* Tromans, The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting, p. 107

* Tromans, The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting, p. 108

* J. Heighet, Behind Orientalism's Veil

* Tromans, The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting, p. 44

* MacKenzie, Orientalism: History, Theory and the Art, p. 67


* Heighet, J., Behind Orientalism's Veil (accessed 11 Dec 09)

* Long, P., Palmer, N. J., Tourism and Cultural Change, Royal tourism: excursions around monarchy (Channel View Publications, 2008),

* MacKenzie, J. M., Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts (UK, Manchester University Press, 2004),

* Simpson, M., Orientalist Travellers (accessed 19 Dec 09)

* Taboroff, J., The Orientalists (accessed 11 Dec 09)

* Tate Britain, British Orientalist painting - The Orient in Perspective

* Thorton, L., The Orientalists, Painter-Travellers (France, PocheCouleur,1994)

* Tromans, N., The Lure of the East, British Orientalist Painting (London, Tate Publishing, 2009)

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