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Het verbeelde Morgenland : Jean Portaels en de oriëntalistische praxis in de Belgische schilderkunst (1830-1913)

Davy Depelchin (UGent)
(2016)
Author
Promoter
(UGent) and Michel Draguet
Organization
Abstract
During the 1960s and 70s, post-colonial critics shone a spotlight on Orientalism through their fierce condemnation. Edward Said, in particular, caused a storm in academic circles with the publication of Orientalism (1978), in which he accused the Orientalist school of being linked to Imperialist propaganda and a wholly subjective perception of the East. The general validity of this argument has, after a sustained polemic, lost some of its impact. Meanwhile, the majority of researchers now recognize that the phenomenon is essentially more complex than Said asserted. Orientalism has political, social, psychological, academic and artistic elements and, as such, can assume many forms. The term Orientalism can be used as follows: to indicate an imperialist political policy; as a label for a certain kind of wanderlust; as a name for a form of escapism; an indicator of a scientific interest in oriental affairs; or to denote an artistic theme that enjoyed great popularity in the nineteenth century. Of all these manifestations, the role played by the arts is perhaps the most interesting. While one can, indeed, view Orientalist images as end products that encapsulate many of the aforementioned elements, it is also true that they can be presented as catalysts for other attributes of Orientalism. It is precisely this interdependence that complicates the phenomenon for present-day art historians, and which also contributed to the immense popularity of artistic Orientalism during the nineteenth century. As a result of the predilection for the trends that emerged in the neighbouring superpowers, Orientalist painting had an undeniably strong presence within the young civic state of Belgium, which was founded in 1830. Following the example of predominantly French pioneers, many Belgian artists also travelled to the Orient. Constantinople, the Levant, Egypt, Algeria or Morocco: the destinations varied depending upon the traveller and his precise objectives. All of these undertakings contributed to the unveiling of a world that had hitherto only existed in the imaginations of most Belgians. When artists returned from the Orient, their portfolios were usually overflowing with sketches and studies. Yet they only tended to start painting once they had gathered this material around them in their studios. But although the artists had made their sketches d’après nature, the images that they ultimately set down on canvas or panel were, by definition, reasoned constructions. They were the result of the interplay between expectations, perceptions and memories. Furthermore, the complex images that the authors had in mind needed to be reconciled with the laws and aesthetics governing the medium in which they intended to work. While it is true to say that the artistic practices of the day changed the face of Orientalism, it is also the case that the subject matter gradually made a contribution to the art of painting. Orientalism called the hierarchy of the genres into question, brought the constraints of studio practice to light – even though most of the artists refused to see this – and allowed artists to apprehend the tension between perceived reality, on the one hand, and the conventional pictorial schemes and aesthetic standards on the other. In addition, the Orientalist theme provided Belgian artists with their own opportunity to refresh the imagery. In the case of Jean Portaels (1818–95), the artist central to this book, the Orient was initially the place that could help him, as an historical painter, to bring greater truth to Biblical topics. Yet when asked to describe how, in practice, this would happen, there was no single answer. While some of his colleagues hoped to find a visual equivalent for the modern biblical exegesis, Portaels remained adamant that the quest for renewal should not compromise the legibility of the image. The artist himself was striving to attain equilibrium in his compositions by deliberately writing them into art history. On his first trip to the Middle East (1845–46), Portaels realized that the Orient would be more than a source of inspiration for religious art, and that it possessed a different potential. As a result of this awareness, the artist’s genre painting also became part of the Orientalist oeuvre, which he practiced throughout his lifetime. The genre, considered ‘inferior’ at the beginning of the century, was viewed as thoroughly contemporary by 1840–50. These were the paintings that, with their generally accessible subject matter and more convenient formats, led to the blossoming of Orientalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. Artists were aware that in order to make a living from their art, they should tailor their approach to their audience. In this, they were certainly encouraged by art dealers and printmakers. Within a specialized and professional art market, few could afford to only paint historical pieces for salons. That Orientalism appealed to bourgeois tastes helps to explain why large quantities of Eastern-inspired artworks continued to be produced throughout the nineteenth century. Yet the art world itself was also partly responsible. Through both images and words, artist-travellers won their colleagues over with their passion for the Orient. In this context, Jean Portaels was extremely important in Belgium. By combining his artist practice with a successful teaching career, he influenced many young colleagues. Since he also actively encouraged his students to travel and acquire international experience, it is hardly surprising that the names of several of his students adorn the lists of Belgian travellers to the Orient. It is because of Jean Portaels’ key role in the introduction and spread of Orientalism in Belgium that we take his life and work as a starting point for this book’s analysis of nineteenth-century Belgian painters and the Orientalist praxis. In this study, we successively consider what motivated the artists to turn their gaze eastwards, how they physically tackled the journey to the Orient, and the manner in which they subsequently conveyed their impressions through pictures. Finally, we also look at the mechanisms by which these images reached both young artists and the art-loving Belgian public.
Keywords
Classicism, Karel Ooms, Exoticism, Syria, Ottoman Empire, Palestine, Tunisia, Spain, Turkey, Algeria, North-Africa, Florent Mols, Jacob Jacobs, André Hennebicq, Jean-Baptiste Huysmans, Henri Evenepoel, Edouard De Jans, François Bossuet, Emile Wauters, Theo Van Rysselberghe, Joseph Coomans, Jules Starck, Eugène Van Maldeghem, Art Criticism, Charles Verlat, Public Taste, Arts Education, Art Dealing, Juliaan De Vriendt, Art Collecting, International Exhibitions, Reproducing Art Works, Salons, Objects in Paintings, Exhibiting, Artists' Correspondence, Artistic Practice, Creating Images, Studio Practice, Artistic Renewal, Praxis, Travel Itineraries, Orient, Social Component of Travelling, Hierarchy of Genres, Grand Tour, Portrait Painting, Landscape Painting, Genre Painting, Biblical History Painting, Painting, Belgian Art, Drawing, 19th Century, Art History, Orientalism, François-Joseph Navez, Pierre Van der Ouderaa, Victor Papeleu, Fernand Scribe, Cosmopolitanism, Internationalism, Egypt, Morocco, Romanticism, Modernism

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Citation

Please use this url to cite or link to this publication:

MLA
Depelchin, Davy. “Het Verbeelde Morgenland : Jean Portaels En De Oriëntalistische Praxis in De Belgische Schilderkunst (1830-1913).” 2016 : n. pag. Print.
APA
Depelchin, D. (2016). Het verbeelde Morgenland : Jean Portaels en de oriëntalistische praxis in de Belgische schilderkunst (1830-1913). Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Ghent, Belgium.
Chicago author-date
Depelchin, Davy. 2016. “Het Verbeelde Morgenland : Jean Portaels En De Oriëntalistische Praxis in De Belgische Schilderkunst (1830-1913)”. Ghent, Belgium: Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy.
Chicago author-date (all authors)
Depelchin, Davy. 2016. “Het Verbeelde Morgenland : Jean Portaels En De Oriëntalistische Praxis in De Belgische Schilderkunst (1830-1913)”. Ghent, Belgium: Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy.
Vancouver
1.
Depelchin D. Het verbeelde Morgenland : Jean Portaels en de oriëntalistische praxis in de Belgische schilderkunst (1830-1913). [Ghent, Belgium]: Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy; 2016.
IEEE
[1]
D. Depelchin, “Het verbeelde Morgenland : Jean Portaels en de oriëntalistische praxis in de Belgische schilderkunst (1830-1913),” Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Ghent, Belgium, 2016.
@phdthesis{7243106,
  abstract     = {During the 1960s and 70s, post-colonial critics shone a spotlight on Orientalism through their fierce condemnation. Edward Said, in particular, caused a storm in academic circles with the publication of Orientalism (1978), in which he accused the Orientalist school of being linked to Imperialist propaganda and a wholly subjective perception of the East.
The general validity of this argument has, after a sustained polemic, lost some of its impact. Meanwhile, the majority of researchers now recognize that the phenomenon is essentially more complex than Said asserted. Orientalism has political, social, psychological, academic and artistic elements and, as such, can assume many forms. The term Orientalism can be used as follows: to indicate an imperialist political policy; as a label for a certain kind of wanderlust; as a name for a form of escapism; an indicator of a scientific interest in oriental affairs; or to denote an artistic theme that enjoyed great popularity in the nineteenth century. Of all these manifestations, the role played by the arts is perhaps the most interesting. While one can, indeed, view Orientalist images as end products that encapsulate many of the aforementioned elements, it is also true that they can be presented as catalysts for other attributes of Orientalism.
It is precisely this interdependence that complicates the phenomenon for present-day art historians, and which also contributed to the immense popularity of artistic Orientalism during the nineteenth century. As a result of the predilection for the trends that emerged in the neighbouring superpowers, Orientalist painting had an undeniably strong presence within the young civic state of Belgium, which was founded in 1830. Following the example of predominantly French pioneers, many Belgian artists also travelled to the Orient. Constantinople, the Levant, Egypt, Algeria or Morocco: the destinations varied depending upon the traveller and his precise objectives. All of these undertakings contributed to the unveiling of a world that had hitherto only existed in the imaginations of most Belgians. 
When artists returned from the Orient, their portfolios were usually overflowing with sketches and studies. Yet they only tended to start painting once they had gathered this material around them in their studios. But although the artists had made their sketches d’après nature, the images that they ultimately set down on canvas or panel were, by definition, reasoned constructions. They were the result of the interplay between expectations, perceptions and memories. Furthermore, the complex images that the authors had in mind needed to be reconciled with the laws and aesthetics governing the medium in which they intended to work.
While it is true to say that the artistic practices of the day changed the face of Orientalism, it is also the case that the subject matter gradually made a contribution to the art of painting. Orientalism called the hierarchy of the genres into question, brought the constraints of studio practice to light – even though most of the artists refused to see this – and allowed artists to apprehend the tension between perceived reality, on the one hand, and the conventional pictorial schemes and aesthetic standards on the other. In addition, the Orientalist theme provided Belgian artists with their own opportunity to refresh the imagery. In the case of Jean Portaels (1818–95), the artist central to this book, the Orient was initially the place that could help him, as an historical painter, to bring greater truth to Biblical topics. Yet when asked to describe how, in practice, this would happen, there was no single answer. While some of his colleagues hoped to find a visual equivalent for the modern biblical exegesis, Portaels remained adamant that the quest for renewal should not compromise the legibility of the image. The artist himself was striving to attain equilibrium in his compositions by deliberately writing them into art history.
On his first trip to the Middle East (1845–46), Portaels realized that the Orient would be more than a source of inspiration for religious art, and that it possessed a different potential. As a result of this awareness, the artist’s genre painting also became part of the Orientalist oeuvre, which he practiced throughout his lifetime. The genre, considered ‘inferior’ at the beginning of the century, was viewed as thoroughly contemporary by 1840–50. These were the paintings that, with their generally accessible subject matter and more convenient formats, led to the blossoming of Orientalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. Artists were aware that in order to make a living from their art, they should tailor their approach to their audience. In this, they were certainly encouraged by art dealers and printmakers. Within a specialized and professional art market, few could afford to only paint historical pieces for salons.
That Orientalism appealed to bourgeois tastes helps to explain why large quantities of Eastern-inspired artworks continued to be produced throughout the nineteenth century. Yet the art world itself was also partly responsible. Through both images and words, artist-travellers won their colleagues over with their passion for the Orient. In this context, Jean Portaels was extremely important in Belgium. By combining his artist practice with a successful teaching career, he influenced many young colleagues. Since he also actively encouraged his students to travel and acquire international experience, it is hardly surprising that the names of several of his students adorn the lists of Belgian travellers to the Orient.
It is because of Jean Portaels’ key role in the introduction and spread of Orientalism in Belgium that we take his life and work as a starting point for this book’s analysis of nineteenth-century Belgian painters and the Orientalist praxis. In this study, we successively consider what motivated the artists to turn their gaze eastwards, how they physically tackled the journey to the Orient, and the manner in which they subsequently conveyed their impressions through pictures. Finally, we also look at the mechanisms by which these images reached both young artists and the art-loving Belgian public.},
  author       = {Depelchin, Davy},
  keywords     = {Classicism,Karel Ooms,Exoticism,Syria,Ottoman Empire,Palestine,Tunisia,Spain,Turkey,Algeria,North-Africa,Florent Mols,Jacob Jacobs,André Hennebicq,Jean-Baptiste Huysmans,Henri Evenepoel,Edouard De Jans,François Bossuet,Emile Wauters,Theo Van Rysselberghe,Joseph Coomans,Jules Starck,Eugène Van Maldeghem,Art Criticism,Charles Verlat,Public Taste,Arts Education,Art Dealing,Juliaan De Vriendt,Art Collecting,International Exhibitions,Reproducing Art Works,Salons,Objects in Paintings,Exhibiting,Artists' Correspondence,Artistic Practice,Creating Images,Studio Practice,Artistic Renewal,Praxis,Travel Itineraries,Orient,Social Component of Travelling,Hierarchy of Genres,Grand Tour,Portrait Painting,Landscape Painting,Genre Painting,Biblical History Painting,Painting,Belgian Art,Drawing,19th Century,Art History,Orientalism,François-Joseph Navez,Pierre Van der Ouderaa,Victor Papeleu,Fernand Scribe,Cosmopolitanism,Internationalism,Egypt,Morocco,Romanticism,Modernism},
  language     = {dut},
  pages        = {2 v.},
  publisher    = {Ghent University. Faculty of Arts and Philosophy},
  school       = {Ghent University},
  title        = {Het verbeelde Morgenland : Jean Portaels en de oriëntalistische praxis in de Belgische schilderkunst (1830-1913)},
  year         = {2016},
}