Orientalism in the Alfred Rubens Collection

by Dr Kathrin Pieren, Collections Manager and Curator

The museum’s Rubens Collection
of 1,600 drawings, prints, etchings, and lithographs from the 17th to the 20th century encompasses scenes from Jewish life and portrays
Jewish personalities, mostly from Britain. Yet, it also includes ethnographic prints of Jews
from Northern Africa, Turkey and the Middle East. These depictions of ethnographic
‘types’, made to bring the customs and costumes of far-away lands to a Western
audience, reveal aspects of the West’s continuing fascination with the


Left: Drawing of a Turkish Jew, c. 1830 (AR 2388); Right: Jeune Juive, wood engraving by Verdeil from an original by Pauquet, 1841-1850 (AR 45)

For centuries, people in Europe have been fascinated by the
area around the Eastern and Southern seaboard of the Mediterranean, the ‘Orient’
or ‘Levant’. This was largely due to the origins of Christianity in Judaism in
the Middle East.

During the Middle Ages and in Early Modernity the Orient was
seen both as a political and cultural threat to the Christian West and as an
attraction, since Muslims and Jews brought customs, art, poetry, philosophy,
and sciences to the West. 

In the 17th century, with the increase in
trade with the Ottoman Empire travelling became easier, painters and authors
visited Turkey and Persia and reported about these areas. The Ottoman Empire
held a particular fascination, and a ‘craze’ for all things Turkish
(turqueries) matched the ‘craze’ for all things Chinese (chinoiseries). Artists
and diplomats reported about their travels, trying to capture the habits and
dresses of that multicultural empire which included many Jewish people.

The earliest representations of a Jewish woman and man from
the Ottoman Empire in the Rubens Collection are reproductions from the book by Byzantian
Greek scholar Laonicos Chalcocondyles, Histoire
des Turcs
(General History of the Turks) from 1662. 

In fact, they are even
older as Chalcocondyles copied them from the book by Nicolò de Nicolai, Le Navigationi et Viaggi nella Turchia
(The Navigations and Travels in Turkey) from 1568. The author was also upfront
about the illustrations being based on antique medals, descriptions of
travellers to the area and good writers, so reservations regarding the
authenticity of the costumes and descriptions are therefore clearly due.


Femme juive d’Adrinople (modern day Edirne), engaging, 1620 (AR 2360.1)

In the accompanying text Chalcocondyles emphasised the diversity
of ethnic groups in both Constantinople and Adrianopolis, distinct by their
respective dress. According to his description Jewish women wore a headscarf
that also covered the neck and they carried a jewel on a ribbon and, according
to their means, a gold chain, but no other jewellery or rings.


Marchand juif engraving, 1620 (AR 2359.1)

The Jewish merchant in the same book is described as wearing
a long garment similar to the Greeks and Levantins but a distinctive yellow
turban. He would have carried sheets with him to sell on the street.

While his descriptions of the costumes are rather matter of
fact, the author betrayed his negative prejudices against the Jews when
referring to them as ‘a miserable nation’ of outcasts doomed to wonder the
earth. In the context of his publication this negative judgment does not come
as a surprise. 

In his dedication to the Duke of Richelieu, Chalcocondyles
presented the content of the book as being a history of the action and customs
of the Turks whose ‘impiety’ and ‘malice’ he contrasted with the duke’s
‘integrity’ and ‘zeal for the real true and only religion’. His exclusive view
of Christianity clearly coloured his view of Islam as well as Judaism.

Nearly a century later, in 1714, Charles de Ferriol, French
ambassador in Constantinople, published a book with engravings made on the
basis of paintings by Jean-Baptiste Van Mour and others entitled Recueil de cent estampes représentants
différentes nations du Levant
(Collection of one hundred prints
representing the different nations of the Levant).It was long used as a
principal source of information on the Ottoman Empire not only by scholars but
also by artists and writers who were inspired by it and plagiarised it in many
parts of Western Europe. 

Interestingly, the Rubens Collection includes several
versions of the same print with subtle changes. These variants illustrate how
long these prints remained in circulation and how they must have been altered
to accommodate changes in fashion.


Femme juive en habit
de cérémonie
, engraving by G Scotin, c.1714 (AR 2372)

The first image shows a woman dressed in a long buttoned
patterned coat, worn over a skirt and wrapped in an overcoat or stole. The
second print, dating from the end of the 18th century, was
reproduced in a book by printer Theodorum Vietro, Raccolta di 100 Stampe, che rappresentano Figure, ed Abiti di varie
(Collection of 100 Prints Representing Figures, and Dresses of
Various Nations…) from 1790.


Demoiselle juive en
habit de noces
, engraving from an original by Franciscus Smith, 1783-1791 (AR 2377)

In the second picture the coat is made of a stripy fabric. A
curtain in a matching colour now covers the window on the left and the view
from the window on the right has been omitted, making the space more intimate; the
design of the rug has shifted from geometric to floral. Moreover, the woman’s
face has changed, her gaze becoming more direct and less contemplative. This
might be due to the fact that the ceremonial dress in the earlier print has now
more specifically become a wedding dress!

In the 19th century, an even greater number of
artists represented the ‘Orient’ and the focus shifted to other countries, partly
due to power shifts. As the Ottoman Empire declined, Arabs became the
stereotypical ‘oriental’. Just like earlier artists had travelled to Italy on
their Grand Tour, the artists of the day went to the Middle East and Northern
Africa. However, most of them were still happy to create the Orient from the comfort
of their European studios, collecting artefacts, prints and basing themselves
on travel accounts.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was one of those artists who
actually got to spend time abroad. As with many other artists his fascination
with the Orient was rooted in literature, including the works of Dante
Alighieri, Torquato Tasso and Lord Byron. He finally travelled to Morocco in
1832 upon invitation by King Louis-Philippe who sent a delegation to the Sultan
in the face of an insurgency in the Oran region (Algeria). 

From the beginning,
Delacroix was fascinated and he considered Tangiers ‘a place conceived for
painters… there is real beauty here, not the beauty vaunted in fashionable
works’. He spent six months in Northern Africa. During that time he filled
seven large sketchbooks and created an album of 18 watercolours. A month after
his arrival he had the chance to attend a Jewish wedding, on which he based his
Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1841) now
in the Louvre.


Juive d’Alger, etching by Eugene Delacroix, 1833 (AR 40)

The Musée Delacroix the above print represents a Jewish bride in the company of her servant, waiting after being dressed up. While he was working from direct encounters
with his subjects, many other artists of the time relied on imagination and
hearsay when depicting another private female space, the harem. 

One of the most
popular subjects among orientalist painters at the time, it was represented as
abundant with exotic beauty and erotic undercurrents, telling us more about
Western ideas of the Orient than actual life in those countries.

In the 20th century, Jews from the Middle East
held a specific fascination for some Jewish people in Western Europe. At the very
beginning of the century, the German Jewish cultural magazine Ost und West published illustrated
articles on Jews in Central Asia and the Yemen and it also contained images of
Jews from Northern Africa and Palestine. 

The concept that these people had
preserved some authentic characteristics of the ancient Hebrews had implications
for the Zionist movement. At the Bezalel School of Art, founded in Jerusalem in
1906 to develop a Jewish style in art, the drawing of Jewish ‘types’ was a
regular practice.


Moroccan Jew by E M Lilien, 1909 (AR 1997)

A co-founder of the school, Austrian illustrator and
printmaker Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925) travelled to Palestine several
times between 1906 and 1918. This portrait is one of several Northern African
Jewish portraits in the Rubens Collection he drew, most likely during one of
his trips. Different from the earlier representations described above, his
portraits are less concerned with dress and focus on differences in facial
features and expression instead.

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