The Black Exotic: Tradition and Ethnography in Nineteenth-Century Orientalist Art
Childs, Adrienne Louise
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This study of select works by Orientalist artists Jean-Léon Gérôme and Charles Cordier charts the trajectory of the idea of the black exotic and investigates the symbolism of black figures in Orientalist painting and sculpture. Representations of blacks in Orientalist art served a complex and nuanced function as nineteenth-century European artists fashioned the exotic. At the nexus of traditional tropes of blackness and the new science of ethnography, they were a critical tool used to construct an imagined Orient within the context of Orientalism--the phenomenal passion for the exotic in the nineteenth century. Blacks were multifaceted figures that evoked sexuality, servitude, degradation, and primitive culture while providing decorative beauty and the allure of difference. The trope of the exotic black is rooted in a tradition of representing Africans dating back to the Italian Renaissance. By the nineteenth century ethnographic approaches to race permeated Orientalist ideologies and affected a qualitative shift in how black figures operated in visual culture. Through a critical analysis of the relationship between exoticism and blackness, this study addresses the need for a more specialized interpretation of how attitudes towards race were encoded in nineteenth-century visual arts.