To Europeans, the “other” proved both captivating and mysterious. Orientalist art allowed Europeans to project their desires and fears onto real or imagined cultures entirely different from their own while leaving themselves ostensibly unchanged. They found the rich colors, lush textiles, and distinctive architecture of the East particularly attractive.
Even if they had not traveled to the East, Europeans based their ideas of “exotic” cultures on descriptions provided by artists and writers. While some of these images reflected reality in some way, they often exaggerated what Europeans would find shocking or desirable–nude harem women, turban-clad men, and mysterious interiors–rather than truly representing everyday life in the Orient. Artists and writers often saw what they wanted to see; or, rather, they produced what the European public wanted to consume.
The Sorceress portrays one such Eastern woman. Her clothing, surroundings, and implements–a voodoo doll, upside-down crucifix, and pentagram with Arabic inscriptions–all indicate that she is in the midst of a magical spell. When The Sorceress debuted at the annual Salon exhibition in 1883, it fit well with other academic art due to Merles’s subject matter, careful choice of details, jewel-like colors, and exacting brushstrokes–typical of the popular style of the day.
—Leta Woller, education–visitor engagement intern 2012-2013
Join the conversation!
Just as 19th-century European artists glamorized the East, many people today continue to stereotype cultures different from their own. Whether on film or in the media, it is often difficult to see a culture outside of that stereotype or not to project the acts of a small group onto the beliefs of a population as a whole. When do stereotypes evolve into prejudice?
Take a look at these works at the BMA and beyond, and join the conversation below.
From the BMA:
From The New York Post:
From The New York Times:
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