American Orientalist Painters
by Khalid Chaouch
Driven by different motives, an important wave of American painters visited Morocco in the middle of the 19th century. The attraction of the Orient led these artists to Morocco where they hoped to see things Oriental and paint them on the spot. Still others preferred to gather enough observations and record sights and sketches (and even photographs) to complete their oil and watercolor paintings back to their own studios in Paris, New York, or Washington. In both cases, most of these American travelling painters rented houses in Tangier, Tetouan, or in others Moroccan cities and stayed in the sunny country for a few weeks or months. The results were a unique gathering of Orientalist paintings exuding an excess of meridional light and color and relating pictorial tales of a ‘Morocco that was’ (to use Walter Harris’s terms).
The list of American painters of Morocco is not long compared to their European peers, but their paintings reveal a distinct American vision of this country and its people, architecture, and landscapes. Among these artists, whose estimated number exceeds 80, we have recorded the works of 18 American painters who actually came to Morocco in the 19th century, and whose quite representative works give a view on how American oil and watercolors, mixed with Moroccan scenes, gave birth to a particularly American form of Orientalist art.
This American form of Orientalism can be seen in the set of themes evoked by the different painters. But when it comes to these American painters as individual geniuses, each painter was, in fact, particularly concerned with a certain facet of the Moroccan landscape. It follows that while some painters were attracted by the local people as individuals, others were more seduced by certain domestic animals of Morocco, and others sketched the back alleys of the city, rendering the dilapidated walls and worn-out patterns and recreating the decorative architecture of palaces and harem interiors. In many cases, artists resorted to the Orientalist element only as an artistic device of contextualization: a palm tree, a minaret, a white dome under a blue sky, Islamic architecture with Arabesque and Arab calligraphy. Even at this level, the minaret is typically Moroccan (not Egyptian or Turkish), the flagged tiles are authentically local, and the adorning calligraphy reflects the Arab writing singular to Morocco as the westernmost part of the Arab World.
The common aesthetic features
How American painters aesthetically perceived Morocco and its landscapes evolved over time. At first, there was the attraction of an Orient which was more imagined and real. For those that did not come to Morocco, this was a world of cruel Moors, dark desires, thwarted female fantasies. Then, thanks to political developments and transportation progress, more American painters began to travel to this country and to render this imagined Orient in less imagined ways. Once travel to Morocco increased, fantastical images began to wane gradually in favor of more bright colors and more realism. In this regard, American travelling painters departed from their European predecessors (mainly their French and British ones). They ‘frequently painted what they saw rather than what they expected’ or imagined.
Consequently, American travelling painters were slightly outside the Orientalist mainstream, though most of them had some flirtation with the Orientalist sensibility. Compared to the Orientalist style of contemporary European works, American painters showed considerably more realism as part of the emergence of a new trend in American painting as a whole. While certain topics could be inscribed within the mainstream Orientalist modes of representation, others were approached in a new way more in favor of Moroccan authenticity. This American uniqueness can also be inferred from the fact that, out of the significant list of 68 Orientalist travelling painters compiled by Lynne Thornton, only one American artist, Frederick Arthur Bridgman, was chosen to represent the American school.
It should also be noted that the turn of the century witnessed a shift in aesthetic sensibility among these painters; Impressionism, which was a French art movement that had emerged with Degas, Monet, and Renoir, ‘was picked up by American painters towards the end of the 19th century.’ This is was also the case of travelling painters such as James Wells Champney, John Singer Sargent, Louis Comfort Tiffany,
Three cases in point
A short aesthetic and contextual analysis of 3 representative paintings shows how these American artists painted Morocco, especially as seen and appreciated from a Moroccan point of view. The following three painters reflect both the art of American travelling painters and their unique style among Orientalist painters at large.
Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928)
Frederick Arthur Bridgman, who travelled to Morocco in 1872, was part of a group of American painters chaperoned by Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Bridgman’s painting entitled Aicha, a Woman of Morocco (1883) reflects the individualized Oriental portraiture that American artists began to focus on in Morocco. The personal name, ‘Aicha’, and the singular form, ‘a woman’, all attest to a neat veering away from the French models in painting. Far from being a mere Oriental type, this lady ‘of Morocco’ is given a very distinct personal identity, complete individuality, and a sense of ordinariness. Instead of the very oriental hookah, a qanoon (musical instrument) is nonchalantly discarded at her feet. Aicha occupies most of the pictorial space. Her tilted head, equally supported by her tilted arm, leaves no doubt about her dreaming and meditative mood. Apart from the qanoon, which serves as a contextualizing element of the Orient, the architectural decorative arabesque on the background wall and the open qaftan are of typically Moroccan pattern. At a more contextual and thematic level, however, the woman in this painting is totally engulfed in a meditative mood. Her sad gaze through the grated window says volumes about thwarted desires, broken dreams, and female yearnings of freedom and probably ‘fresh air’. Noteworthy is the absence of the strong Moroccan light which pervades nearly all the other paintings that Bridgman did of Morocco. The chiaroscuro effect of this painting, which is clearly rendered by the rectilinear vertical limits between the window and the interior, conveys a sense of captivity and imprisonment.
Edwin Lord Weeks (1849-1903)
Together with Bridgman, Edwin Lord Weeks is considered to be one of the two ‘American painters now most identified with Orientalist subject matter.’ Weeks first came to Morocco in 1875. In this and other journeys to this country, he visited the cities of Tangier, Rabat, Mogador (Essaouira), and Marrakech. His initial studies were in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts, but his most important teacher was Leon Bonnat, ‘who instilled in him the dual principles of absolute realism and love of color.’ That is why his paintings exude so much Realism, despite their Orientalist mood and subject matter. To use Weeks’ own words, one of his important artistic concerns in these southern latitudes was ‘to create just the right effect of sunlight.’
In Weeks’s painting entitled 'Arms Trader,' the strong contrast leaves ground for the Moroccan bright sun to give more light and pave the way for more details. Even the shady side of the setting is given a certain amount of light thanks to the fire of the blacksmith’s bellows. This painting is, in fact, a sum of minor tableaux that each can be an independent artwork of its own, and when looking at this collage, one might wonder who is the arms trader? Is it only the connoisseur handling the long mukhala (rifle) at the center of the Kissaria or the old woman, on the left, selling old typical knives as well? The obsession with realism and detail weighs heavily on the clarity and brightness of the photographic picture. The curvilinear forms of the arched door, in the center, and on the small windows on the right, added to the the worn-out pattern on the rug shade-curtain on the left, serve as contextualizing elements of the Orient but with a distinctively Moroccan-tiled edge of the shingle roofing around the kissaria patio.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
John Singer Sargent studied painting in Paris. His two travels to Morocco resulted in some of his finest water-colors. During the winter of 1879 he carried out his plan to travel through Spain and Morocco; by January 1880 the party, which included Sargent and the two French artists Daux and Bac, arrived in Morocco, and ‘the heat of Morocco came as a sudden change from the fluid climate of the Spanish mountains.’ The renting of a house in Tangier certainly enabled the American painter to study carefully his Moroccan subjects and landscapes at different moments of the day. He loved his stay in Tangier, writing to his friend Ben del Castillo: “certainly the aspect of the place is striking, the costume grand, and the Arabs often magnificent.”
Sargent’s painting, 'Fumée d’Ambre Gris' (1880) presents a subject drawn from his Moroccan trip and was well received by American audiences. The literary interest of the picture, according to Stanley Olson, was John Singer Sargent’s ‘flamboyant reconstruction of those details he wanted to retain, not simple documentation.’ This ‘translucent painting’ is intended to depict ‘the ritual of fumigation that is still practiced by North African Moslems and Jews to ward off evil spirits.’ For a Moroccan spectator, the whole picture is a beautiful and meticulous reconstruction of a typically Moroccan scene, where the woman’s inhaling of incense – not amber! – is supposedly to be done in the shrine of a saint. The architecture of the place and the outdoor haïk of the lady are carefully reproduced by the painter, but the most striking anecdote of this painting is the neat face of the lady. The image, far from being a purely exoticized representation of North-African women, shows how (or against) some American travelers wondered about the beauty (or ugliness) of the Moroccan veiled women.
Reception by Americans and Moroccans
When considering all the Orientalist paintings of John Singer Sargent, we find an instance of how the climate of Morocco and its bright sun deeply affected the art of the painter. Sargent’s “encounter with the intense light of North Africa” would later entice Matisse and Kandinsky to Morocco and influence the shift in Western painting toward greater abstraction.
The travel of American artists to Morocco resulted in a considerably large compendium of American paintings of the local landscape with its people, animals, architecture and natural scenes. Aesthetically, these works capture human and cultural moments and show how American artists were attracted to the effect of the Moroccan light and colors. While some European painters externalized their fantasies of a sensual and ‘barbaric’ Orient, most American painters of Morocco rather chose to render more tangible and more felt images of this country. In the American case, Morocco is still an ‘Other’, but it is presented both in its Oriental attraction and its 19th-century reality and authenticity.
As for the reception of these unique American artistic works of the 19th century by Moroccan and American audiences, it seems that with the distance in time and in perspective, the pleasure of appreciating such works of art is now guaranteed for American audiences, but it may even be increased for Moroccan audiences since they are themselves concerned by the subjects of the paintings.
The American artist’s experience of being there (in Morocco) had undoubtedly two reciprocal effects. On the one hand, some American painters were deeply artistically influenced by the Moroccan scenes, sights and lights they had so vibrantly painted. The excessive light of the country, plus the exoticism of its people and settings, acted as a catalyst for some painters to set off new ways of painting, thus marking a turning point in their artistic career. On the other hand, these American painters so vividly rendered an important collection scenes of 19th c. Morocco that may not have otherwise been recorded. Seen from this Moroccan perspective, and regardless of the Orientalist touch that brands some of them, most of these paintings represent an artistic archive on a very particular phase in the social history of Morocco, scenes and situations often overlooked by local history books because they were seen as commonplace.
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Meet Our Guest: Khalid Chaouch
Khalid Chaouch, PhD from Toulouse-Jean Jaurès University in France, is a professor at Sultan Moulay Slimane University, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Beni Mellal, Morocco. He currently teaches ‘Modern & Classical Drama,’ ‘Moroccan-American Relations,’ and ‘Film Analysis.’ He has contributed to national and international journals with papers on cross-cultural studies, travel writing and painting, film analysis, and IP.