Orientalism: the reality

Georges Jules Victor Clairin (1843–1919), An Ouled Naïl Woman (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the artists who took the trouble to travel to areas in the expansive ‘Oriental’ zone discovered that they were not all they were cracked up to be in ‘Orientalist’ fantasy novels and paintings. John Singer Sargent, for example, visited North Africa, and painted several dancers, but his portraits of high society women show far more of their flesh than any of his Orientalist paintings.

The family of Alfred Chataud (1833–1908) owned property in Algeria, and he paid several visits to those before he settled near Sidi Moussa, to the south of Algiers.

Alfred Chataud (1833–1908), A Richly-Adorned Ouled Naïl Woman (date not known), watercolor and gouache on brown paper, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Few of Chataud’s paintings from Algeria are now accessible, but one of his most striking watercolour sketches is of A Richly-Adorned Ouled Naïl Woman. She is a far cry from any figure seen in the best-known Orientalist works.

Georges Jules Victor Clairin (1843–1919) is an unlikely artist to have served as ethnographer, having been a well-known socialite and long-term friend of the actress Sarah Bernhardt. But he visited Morocco during the 1860s, where he became friends with Marià Fortuny, had a particular interest in clothing and costume, and returned to North Africa later.

Georges Jules Victor Clairin (1843–1919), An Ouled Naïl Woman (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Clairin’s two paintings of Ouled Naïl women – above his undated An Ouled Naïl Woman and below An Ouled-Naïl Tribal Dancer from 1895 – provide a couple of glimpses of women from this nomadic group from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Exotic they certainly are, with elaborate headwear, richly-decorated clothing, and no doubt over their identity.

Georges Jules Victor Clairin (1843–1919), An Ouled-Naïl Tribal Dancer (1895), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Of the artists I have come across, though, it is Alphonse-Étienne Dinet (1861–1929) who went furthest to gain a better idea of the reality behind Orientalism. Trained under William Bouguereau himself, he first travelled to the Ouled Naïl Range in the south of Algeria in 1884, with a scientific expedition.

After 1903, when he bought a house there, he spent most of the year painting in and around Bou Saâda, in the heart of Ouled Naïl country. He converted to Islam between 1908-13, since when he was known as Nasr’Eddine Dinet, and only a few months before his death he completed the Hajj pilgrimage.

Nasreddine Dinet (1861–1929), Love’s Martyr (Chahid el ouschq) (date not known), oil on canvas, 116 × 146 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Dinet’s undated Love’s Martyr (Chahid el ouschq) appears to have an underlying narrative which has been lost. It shows a group of what must be Ouled Naïl women, judging by their headgear, making a fuss of an older man who appears visibly distressed, and pleading towards the woman at the left, who seems diffident towards him.

Nasreddine Dinet (1861–1929), Abdel Ghourem et Nour el Aïn (Love’s Slave and Light of the Eyes) (1900), oil on canvas, 47 × 54 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Abdel Ghourem et Nour el Aïn (Love’s Slave and Light of the Eyes) (1900) shows a couple outdoors at night, the man embracing the woman, as she resists his forwardness by placing her spread hand over his mouth, presumably to block his kiss.

Nasreddine Dinet (1861–1929), Spring of Hearts (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims, Reims, France. Image by G. Garitan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dinet’s Spring in Your Hearts (1902) shows three couples, from the womens’ facial markings and dress most probably Ouled Naïl again, who appear to be courting in very modest ways.

Nasreddine Dinet (1861–1929), Bather in the Palm Grove (1916), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Even after he had converted to Islam, Dinet did paint some nudes, such as his Bather in the Palm Grove from 1916. Although this young woman has facial marking and headgear which suggest she might be an Ouled Naïl, in fact Dinet was unable to find a local model prepared to pose for him out of her clothes, and presumably resorted to recruiting from a nearby town or city.

Artist not known, A Dancer of the Cafés, Algeria (c 1917), photograph in The National Geographic Magazine, Volume 31 (1917), page 269, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Several photographers visited the area in which the Ouled Naïl live, and some brought back images of nudes and what appeared to be erotic dancers, which were disseminated as those of Ouled Naïl women. In fact, at least two series have turned out to show prostitutes working in nearby towns.

More reliable sources, such as the National Geographic Magazine, have published images like that above, which first appeared in 1917, showing A Dancer of the Cafés, Algeria (c 1917). Even so, its caption reads:
A DANCER OF THE CAFÉS, ALGERIA. Their faces clouded with a dark paint to increase the natural effect of the desert sun on their skin, their nails darkened with henna, and their cheeks faintly tattooed in blue to show their caste, these beauties of the Ouled Naïl tribe furnish much local color in the crowded cafés of Northern Africa. Their costumes are gorgeous and their heavy ornaments are largely of gold and silver coins.

As late as its 1956 edition, the Michelin Guide dismissed the Ouled Naïl as “mere courtesans and Oriental dancers”.

Undoubtedly some Ouled Naïl women would have gone to live in towns, and some of those may have danced professionally. But viewing Ouled Naïl women as scantily clad, erotic dancers or workers in the sex trade is as balanced and meaningful as typifying Paris and London by the child prostitutes who were a problem there in the late nineteenth century. Yet few artists were prepared to include that in their work.

Neither has the passage of time and changes in society in Europe and the US been any fairer. The paintings of Orientalist fantasy shown in the previous article are revered in major collections around the world, while those shown in this article are neglected and forgotten. Sex still sells paintings, and a large dash of fantasy sells still more. Even a century later.


Gérard-Georges Lemaire (2000, 2008) The Orient in Western Art, HF Ullmann. ISBN 978 3 8331 3578 1.