December 21, 2003

Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures

The crucial point this catalog for an exhibit of American Orientalist painting and the advertising ephemera that followed in its wake is that the Orient, in America, is not the same place as the Orient in 19th century France. To Gérôme, the Orient may have been the North Africa and Middle East of Said's imperialist Orientalism, a land of sensual richness to be explored, conquered, and brought home to mother. To America, though, it's another world entirely. The people whose grandparents thought themselves a city on a hill saw the landscapes of the Holy Land (and its archaeology) as a mirror or a rough draft. The people whose parents fought at Shiloh and Manassas (and Wounded Knee) saw ancient lands as a parable, and lands unknown as an exemplar, for what they had recently endured and what they hoped they were about to achieve.

But the point is the painting, which is gorgeous, sumptuous, and beautifully observed. Because the scenes are different, we see them clearly as we cannot see, say, yet another 19th century leftover breakfast tray. Many of the paintings depict slaves and serving women; in the years after the Civil War and preceding the Progressives, slavery and servitude were much on people's minds.