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

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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…

When Gérôme first visited the area known then as “The Orient” in 1856, he followed the traditional Grand Tour route, travelling up the Nile to Cairo, across to Abu Simbel, finally crossing the Sinai Peninsula and up the Wadi el-Araba to Jerusalem and Damascus.

During these travels, he made sketches of people and places, and brought back with him various objects and costumes to use as props for paintings. He gained a reputation for studious accuracy, with one 19th-century critic praising that “he never paints a picture without the most patient and exhaustive preliminary studies of every matter connected with his subject.”

Detail of ‘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

Although Gérôme’s precision captures the setting and costumes with utmost accuracy, this does not necessarily ensure geographical or cultural authenticity.

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