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Orientalism in America

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Orientalism gained its beginnings from the earliest perceptions that the Western countries in Europe held towards the unique countries of the East:  In the nineteenth and early twentieth the territories of the Orient were considered as alien, sensual, appealing, dangerous, forbidding and even revolting in many respects.  In the nineteenth century the peoples within land termed the “Orient” were believed to own the area around the Mediterranean Sea, covering the areas of today’s Turkey Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. In the early nineteenth century, artists and scholars begin to travel to the Orient, where the Europeans were the first to travel to the Orient’s lands and later the Americans followed. This extensive traveling of the American scholars within these Eastern countries had a pervasive influence of the Orient within American culture. 

Orientalism in America

Many renowned writers and artists such as Bayard Taylor and Frederic Edwin Church traveled to the Middle East, as that area was considered to be the center of Christianity at that time. As a result of this continuous interaction between countries within the area deemed “Oriental” and Europe, the ornamentations and other artworks of the Middle East soon became part of the American decorative art of the period.  By the end of the nineteenth century Oriental subjects and ornaments had penetrate in the modern culture of America. Many affluent homes were decorated with generously decorated rooms featuring complicated woodwork and decoration objects inspired by the Middle Eastern works. Moreover, trade with a number of the Eastern countries brought striking dances and indigenous crafts that received an enthusiastic response from the Americans. However, Orientalism or its influence is not limited to arts and crafts, and scholars have defined Orientalism in a wide variety terms that shall be discussed in detail in this section.

As the western scholars and artisans traveled to the Middle East and brought many Middle Eastern influences in the America culture – especially the aforementioned artworks and ornaments - many renowned painters of that time conscientiously imitated the Oriental styles in their works.  However, due to the perceived nature of “Oriental” themes, this then raised some culturally- sensitive subjects, such as the portrayal of harem interiors and female bathing scenes.  The restrictive colonial views of the French and British artists as they related to the Muslim Asia and Africa can therefore be seen in retrospect as a result of racism and a mind- set of cultural superiority prevailing among them. Despite the controversy of the subjects (or perhaps because of it), these works were widely praised by the public at that time and were considered to be both interesting and disturbing. 

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