Orientalist Lives: Western Artists in the Middle East, 1830–1920
By James Parry
2017, AUC Press, 978-9-77416-835-2, $59.95 hb.
Reviewed by Lucien de Guise on September 15, 2019
The word “Orientalist” is rarely encountered in an art context nowadays, so it’s just as well the title offers some clarification. The cover image doesn’t. For those who know the work of Gustav Bauernfeind, the painting is clearly of the eponymous Orientalist in solar topee engaging with the locals in a Middle Eastern backstreet. This book stands out more prominently than Bauernfeind does. It’s the first general survey of Orientalist art in recent years, and for once it focuses on the artists behind the often-derided paintings. Instead of tackling them biographically, James Parry has chosen themes such as “Celebrity Studios” and “Model Problems.” The information he provides is revealing, especially the obstacles that faced artists with a taste for travel in the 19th century. By looking at their lives as well as their work, he rekindles some of that curiosity about the Islamic world that existed so much more in the past than now. The collector behind the book, M. Shafik Gabr, is an Egyptian financier with a passion for East-West dialog. His collection appears throughout the book and makes a fine emissary for an essential cause.