Prices for paintings of Middle Eastern subjects, especially those of the so-called Orientalist school, have soared since the 1973 oil boom, escalating from a mere $3,000 to $500,000 for top-quality works. Today, the record price for an Orientalist work is held by Christie’s for the Ludwig Deutsch’s1892 painting The Palace Guard, which they sold for a staggering $3,192,500 in 1999.
Wendy Goldsmith, former head of the 19th Century European Art Department at Christie’s and now an art advisor, noted: “The demand for Orientalist pictures is going from strength to strength but only, however, for a certain segment of the market. More and more new clients from both the Middle East and America are looking for top works by the major artists such as Jean-Léon Gérome, Ludwig Deutsch and John Frederick Lewis, and this is driving prices ever higher. They are very particular in their tastes, and don’t want to “settle” for more medium artists or works, unless they are extremely decorative.”
Indeed, Orientalist art is one of the few areas in which collectors can still find affordable museum-quality pieces, and with more and more of these top works going into private collections – leading to a decrease in supply – we will most likely see prices continue to rise in the coming years.The term Orientalism describes a penchant for the iconography connected with the Near and Middle East, and from the early decades of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, Orientalist art was created with a variety of motifs and collected passionately in the West. Widespread interest in the genre began soon after Napoleon’s abortive 1798 venture into Egypt and started to boom some 40 years later, courtesy of the expanding railway lines and the relaxation of the Ottoman Empire’s travel and trade restrictions.
Indeed, beginning around the end of the 18th century, European travellers set out to explore the East, and set their courses on the established pattern of what has come to be known as “the Grand Tour,” proceeding from the north or the west towards the south and southeast. The Grand Tour was often conducted out of a zeal for archaeology, and many artists, such as the Scottish David Roberts, placed a high value on topographical exactitude and worked from sketches made on the spot. Yet, as the genre became increasingly popular, other followers began to paint Orientalist pictures without ever leaving their studio, and simply used reference books and local models dressed in imported costumes and posed with imported props.
Typical subjects included the horse fair, the slave market, the mosque, the Holy Land landscape, and studies of caliphs, muezzins, Nubian slaves, and soldiers. One of the most favored subjects, however, was undoubtedly the harem, filled with its sensual odalisques and rich interiors. Such images were typically painted in the intensely detailed and realistic academic style, which ruled Europe for several centuries until Impressionism arrived on the scene.
By 1910, however, Orientalism had virtually disappeared from view in the West, not because of its subject matter, but because of its style. Throughout most of the 20th century, academic art was no longer attractive, giving way to a more modern style.
Isabelle de La Bruyère works in the Oriental department of Christies of London. She wrote this column for EXECUTIVE.