This book is much more like what I had hoped for in my disappointed reading of Idols of Perversity, Bram Dijkstra’s feminist study of representations of women in fin-de-siècle culture. Despite the small page format of this ACR PocheCouleur Orientalists series, the illustrations are in color throughout, and they embrace a terrific range of paintings organized by theme. It appears that Orientalist art expert Lynne Thornton’s text was written with free reference to the whole universe of such works, and she has been to some trouble to acquire rights to very many of them. The optimal reading technique here requires regular reference to the index of illustrations at the back of the book, in order to find works and artists mentioned while reading Thornton’s characterizations of them.
Thornton’s account treats both the realities and the European perceptions of various institutions in the 19th-century Muslim world, including the harem, the hammam (i.e. public bath), and slavery. She often has recourse to the relevant commentary of European women from the period, such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Lady Anne Blunt, Lady Duff Gordon, and Mabel Bent.
Although this book is genuinely a work of art history and aesthetic criticism, rather than the polemic of Dijkstra’s book mentioned above, Thornton is culturally astute and incisive. She offers insightful comments regarding the projection of European sensibilities in 19th-century depictions of the Near East and North Africa (the “Orient” in question for these Orientalist painters). For example, “It is, however, extremely rare to find an Orientalist painting in which the woman is sexually satisfied” (122). This remark coordinates with others to demonstrate that despite the sometimes salacious exoticism of the whole Orientalist art project, moral and sexual license were if anything more inhibited than in other subject matter of the period, but similarly circumscribed by masculine appetites.
The art images in the book are very well reproduced on heavy glossy paper, representing a comprehensive survey of the field indicated in the title.