Spotlight on the Collection

January 2013: The Sorceress

L’envoûteuse (The Sorceress). Georges Merle, 1883. Oil on canvas. 57 1/2 × 45 inches. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Purchase with funds provided by Children of the Vann Family: William O. Vann, Sally V. Worthen, Robert D. Vann, in memory of Suzanne Oliver Vann, AFI2.2009.

L’envoûteuse (The Sorceress). Georges Merle, 1883. Oil on canvas. 57 1/2 × 45 inches. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Purchase with funds provided by Children of the Vann Family: William O. Vann, Sally V. Worthen, Robert D. Vann, in memory of Suzanne Oliver Vann, AFI2.2009.

L’envoûteuse (The Sorceress), Georges Merle

The worldview of Europeans in the 19th century expanded far beyond their own borders. While Napoleon’s military campaigns exposed the French to Moorish culture in Spain and North Africa, the Industrial Revolution introduced the railroad, which made distant lands, cultures, and peoples more accessible. Artists interested in the Middle and Far East – called Orientalists – traveled to the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, the Holy Lands, and occasionally East Asia to portray the people and monuments there firsthand.

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!

L’Arabe pleurant son coursier (The Arab Lamenting the Death of his Steed), Jean-Baptiste Mauzisse

“Will ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ be banned as racist in Brooklyn?” New York Post, July 12, 2011

“Beliefs: With more than a year gone by, American Muslims debate Islam, intolerance, terrorism and the significance of Sept. 11,” New York Times, December 7, 2002

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