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Unfolding Orientalism in Art: How John Frederick Lewis Broke the Mold

1 May 2013


In the 19th century during the artistic career of John Frederick Lewis, artists were painting romantic scenes of exotic Middle Eastern lands and characters, especially the scenes most desired by Western Europeans, the harem. The later term coined by Edward Said for this genre and aesthetic is “Orientalism,” referring to the inequality of power created by white European colonization. Middle Eastern cultures were depicted and seen as less civilized, primitive, and sensual. Lewis, at first glance, seems to be no exception to this genre and attitude. However, this study explores the so-called Orientalist works by this little known artist. By examining theoretical discourses regarding Orientalism, Feminism (especially concerning the gaze), and Post-Colonialism, this study will show not only the convoluted issues involved in discussing such 19th century romantic paintings, but also provide new interpretations and insight into Lewis’s lifestyle and artwork. This study shows that Lewis is not the typical artist painting the imaginary East to fulfill the expected requirements, but was a participant of a cultural intersection. I propose that Lewis and his work can be best understood through the lens of hybridity, where he was no longer the colonizer painting the colonized. Rather, Lewis attempts to bridge the unbridgeable gap between the East and the West.


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