The Orient Imagined, Experienced and Remembered in the Work of Alexandre Gabriel Decamps (1803-1860): A Study of the Artist’s Personal Orient
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Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (1803-1863) set out on his only trip to Greece and Turkey in 1828 to return to France and produce visual images of the Orient at a time when no major European artist had traveled to the Near East and at a time when the Orient had yet to be experienced, understood, and interpreted. Decamps’ highly original and personal interpretation of the Orient in painting has been studied by present-day scholars exclusively within the context of Romantic Orientalist genre painting. Studying criticism written on his work throughout the 19th century and working closely with his paintings, certain issues in his Orientalist paintings question the longstanding categorization of his work as solely Romantic Orientalist genre paintings. The fact that the artist never returned to the Orient; the fact that he invested his Orientalist landscapes with a Rembrandesque rather than Oriental light; his constant inclusion of contrasting opposites in the ostensibly subdued compositions he produced; the striking differences between his Oriental visual expressions and those of his Romantic contemporaries; and his own sentiment of being a failed artist, reveal alternative, less settled, readings of his work. Studying Decamps’ Orientalist oeuvre in its social and political contexts and taking into account the artist’s personal ambitions demonstrates the lasting resonance of this work, of the artist’s highly original working methods, and of his innovative technique. This study provides an assessment of Decamps’ Oriental work; it also delineates its relevance and influence in movements beyond Romanticism and into trends that developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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