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October 30, 2009

American "Orientalism"

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I noted in some previous posts that I visited the Guggenheim Gallery of Western Art, part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming in September. It's an impressive complex in what is considered the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Its Web site is here, and an article about its recent re-installation is here (caution: this page might take a while to appear).

No surprise, what ties all the paintings and sculptures together thematically is the West -- that generally dry part of America extending from about the 100th meridian west to the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. Subject matter is landscapes, explorers, white settlers, the U.S. Cavalry, cowboys and other subjects.

A major subject of Western artists from Montana to Arizona is American Indians. Below is a painting in the Guggenheim's collection.

"Contemporary Sioux Indian" by James Bama - 1978

I wrote about Bama here. He was a Brooklyn kid who had good success as a commercial illustrator in New York. In the 1960s he pulled up stakes and went to the Cody area where he transformed himself into a Western artist. (Some illustrators made similar transformations when the market for magazine illustration dried up; others moved to portraiture and other fine arts areas.)

Recently it suddenly dawned on me that the fascination American Indians hold for some American artists is similar to that of Orientalism for Europeans.

As this Wikipedia entry demonstrates, the term "Orientalism" has different meanings to different observers. For our purposes, I'll restrict it to the label applied to a painting genre popular in the 19th century and a while beyond.

From Napoleon's invasion of Egypt until the French gained control of Morocco, Europe became increasingly involved in affairs of North Africa and the Near East, ultimately controlling all that territory save post-Great War Turkey. In the wake of diplomats, businessmen, gunboats, European pashas and colonial administrators came artists who painted scenes of souks, harems, oases and whatever else struck their fancies. For example, a major artist who devoted a large share of his output to Orientalist subjects was Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Some people become greatly fascinated with other cultures, though usually not to the point where they "go native." Gérôme and his friends would happily scoot off to Algiers or Egypt for months at a time but always returned to the comforts and pleasures of Paris. One reason they fixed on North Africa and the Near East was because those areas were indeed near. China was out there and so were India and Japan. A few European painters traveled to those countries in search of exotic subject-matter; but the exotica of the Orientalists was closer at hand.

Given this, I'll hypothesize that American artists attracted to different cultures don't need to undergo the hassle and expense of flying off to Bali, Bhutan or Bangkok to find exotic subjects. All they need do is move to Great Falls, Cody, Taos, Sedona and similar places to paint the American Indian scene while maintaining the comfort of being in the United States.



posted by Donald at October 30, 2009


I have the impression (but I'm open to correction) that Australian painters concentrated on their exotic flora and fauna rather than on the Aborigines. But then their f & f are much more exotic, to Europeans, than North America's.

Posted by: dearieme on October 30, 2009 2:23 PM

This connection of Orientalism with American Indians is rather acute, Donald, esp. since American Indians are genetically Asian. Beyond that, North American was once attached to China and much of the flora and fauna either exists on both sides (like Siberian brown bears vs. Grizzlies) or will thrive on either side (like peonies) because the terrain is similar.

Beyond that, some of the most knockout and successful contemporary Western artists ARE Chinese and putting a nice new swerve into the old tales by including the Chinese people who helped build the West.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on November 1, 2009 9:57 PM

As someone who has driven through several Indian reservations (clearly not the same thing as living on a reservation, but you do get a taste) I can say with assurance that the depiction of the American Indian by American artists is pure romanticism. As was the depiction of Arabs by Delacroix. Romanticism has it's place of course. As long as you don't confuse it with an attempt at verisimilitude.

Posted by: ricpic on November 3, 2009 2:14 PM

Beyond that, some of the most knockout and successful contemporary Western artists ARE Chinese and putting a nice new swerve into the old tales by including the Chinese people who helped build the West

Posted by: free Chinese Mobile softwares|china mobiles games|china mobiles themes on November 8, 2009 4:47 PM

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