The Allure of the Exotic: The Truth Behind Orientalist Art

How artists shaped Western views of the Middle East

Christopher P Jones
7 min readNov 15, 2023


The Snake Charmer (c.1879) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Oil on canvas. 83.8 × 122.1 cm. Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons

French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme painted this meticulously detailed image, titled The Snake Charmer, in about 1879.

A naked boy stands on a threadbare rug, holding aloft a stupendous python that winds silkily around his shoulder and waist. Beside him a man sits playing a flute, his aged body evidently in contrast to the boy’s. Most likely, the boy is naked to assure that no sleight of hand is at play.

An audience of men watches, their backs pressed against an immense blue wall, their eyes (and expressions) transfixed by the boy and his act. Through brilliantly rendered textures and colours — notice the dry crumbling floor and slightly tarnished veneer of the wall tiles — the painting achieves an almost documentary level of realism.

It also evokes. Few artists were as skilled as Gérôme at conjuring the atmosphere of a place, or suggesting the qualities of sound, scent and feel through paint alone.

But where is this exactly? Somewhere in the Middle East?

What exactly does The Snake Charmer tell us about the place it purports to depict?

Exotic Spectacle…