Doha is home to one of the most significant Orientalist art collections. Joyce C Abaño takes you inside the treasure house.
In the heart of Doha lies the inconspicuous four-storey building of the Orientalist Museum. Anybody passing by would not even give it a second glance, but it houses one of the most significant and extensive collections of Orientalist art and sculptures ever assembled.
Around 300 pieces of paintings and sculptures, from the works of French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix to Spanish painter José Villegas y Cordero’s paintings after his travels to the East, and French artist Horace Vernet’s depiction of battle panoramas with Orientalist Arab themes, can be seen inside the mysterious-looking museum. The rest are in storage.
The collection, which amounted to around 700 oil paintings, watercolours, pastels, drawings and prints, and 15 sculptures, was acquired by Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammad Al Thani over a period of 15 years. He donated it to the State of Qatar in 2005.
“We have around 700 paintings, including the ones in storage. We also have 15 pieces of sculpture. But only 300 pieces are displayed for lack of space… They are thinking of creating a bigger space for the Orientalist collection,” said Iraqi artist Ismail Azzam, curator of the Doha Orientalist Museum, which is under the Qatar Museum Authority.
Azzam said Sheikh Hassan bought the paintings at auctions during his travels.
“Sheikh Hassan is an art lover and he loves to collect works of art. He bought some from auctions in London, like in the Mathaf Gallery, Sothebys, Christie’s, and other parts of the world… all the paintings were purchased from auctions, to ensure that those were the original ones,” said Azzam, who is himself a painter.
Entry to the museum is free of charge, but those interested in visiting need to book an appointment for a guided tour. Azzam said most of the visitors to the museum were members of the top sections of society or state guests, ambassadors and guests of the ambassadors. He said a lot of French visitors come to the museum. “They seem to love art so much,” he said. A number of university students also go to the museum as part of their class excursions.
The works of art inside the museum trace Orientalism back to the early 18th century.
Orientalist art can be defined as a Western style of art with the East as a subject. Orientalism refers to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists, and can also refer to a sympathetic stance toward the region by a writer or other person. Orientalism was also a term in art history referring mostly to the works of French artists in the 19th century, whose subject matter, colour and style used elements from their travels to the Mediterranean countries of North Africa and the Near East (or western Asia).
One of the jewels inside Doha’s Orientalist Museum is Delacroix’s realistic portrayal of a “Jewish Girl in Algeria,” a 33 X 24.5 cm oil on canvas. History knows nothing of her and yet, gazing at her image, one feels she is gazing back; across the generations she tells the story that she was as alive as we are today.
The story of the Orientalists is a story of life. Of their lives and what they strove to accomplish and what they loved; and the story of the people they met and the places they recorded.
Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix was a French Romantic artist regarded from the outset of his career as the leader of the French Romantic school. Delacroix’s use of expressive brush strokes and his study of the optical effects of colour profoundly shaped the work of the Impressionists, while his passion for the exotic inspired the artists of the Symbolist movement. A fine lithographer, Delacroix illustrated various works of William Shakespeare, the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott and the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
In 1832, Delacroix travelled to Spain and North Africa, as part of a diplomatic mission to Morocco shortly after the French conquered Algeria. He went not primarily to study art, but to escape from Paris, in hopes of seeing a more primitive culture. He eventually produced over 100 paintings and drawings of scenes from or based on the life of the people of North Africa, and added a new and personal chapter to the interest in Orientalism. Delacroix was entranced by the people and the costumes, and the trip would inform the subject matter of a great many of his future paintings.
He managed to sketch some women secretly in Algiers, as in the painting “Women of Algiers in their Apartment” (1834), but generally he encountered difficulty in finding Muslim women to pose for him because of Muslim rules requiring that women be covered. Less problematical was the painting of Jewish women in North Africa, as subjects for the “Jewish Wedding in Morocco” (1837-41).
The museum houses some of Delacroix’s works, which, apart from the “Jewish girl in Algeria,” include the 22.4 X 28.5 cm watercolour “Two Moroccans Seated In The Countryside.”
Some of the works of French artist Alphonse-Etienne Dinet are also hung in the museum. Dinet first travelled to Algeria in 1884 with a fellow artist whose brother was on an entomological expedition searching for a rare ladybug. He spent the next 45 years travelling between France and Algeria, eventually settling in Bou-Saada. He loved the grace of the Algerians, their culture and religion. He learned Arabic and eventually converted to Islam.
Human representation in art was not allowed in Islam and so the Orientalists provided the rest of the world with the first images of people of the Middle East.
Dinet’s themes were generally real-life events consisting of real people in his beloved adopted town of Bou-Saada. During his lifetime, Dinet gained much notoriety for his Orientalist paintings of Bou-Saada and made this small village known worldwide. While Orientalists often have similar styles, Dinet set himself apart by showing a real sense of humanity in his compositions. To him, his paintings did not just portray exotic people as objects, but as a respected society, as was shown in his painting “The Scarf Dance,” one of the more notable oil paintings in the museum.
Paintings of famous Orientalist names like Eugene Fromentin, Edward Lear, Edwin Long, Louis-François Cassas, Adolf Schreyer, Ludwig Deutsch, Godfried Guffens, Carl Haag, John Frederick Lewis, Jean-Leon Gerome, Horace Vernet, José Villegas y Cordero, Georges Becker, Rudolf Swoboda, Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Prosper Georges Antoine Marilhat and Thomas Brigstocke, among others, line the museum’s walls. They are like windows to the past with the artists’ take on ancient temples, dignified robed and turbanned rulers, camel-riding Bedu, veiled and mysterious women, and brown-skinned people in flowing robes of blue, yellow or deep red.
Haag’s “Happiness in the Desert,” which is the most beautiful of all his collected works, is part of the museum’s collection. This 64.2 X 132.7 cm watercolour on paper bears for its motto this couplet: “… They love laboured strain ’twixt thee and thins a never
Depicted in the painting is the quickly gathering darkness and the pale light of a rising moon across the desert, and in between is a group of travellers; the camel moving with leisurely steps, caparisoned in red with hanging tassels, bearing an Arab woman mounted high, dressed in pale green, with a waving scarf of black gauze. In her outstretched arms she holds a little Arab baby, whose scant white drapery flutters in the breeze; going before and leading the camel is the father, piping on a long reed flute as he walks; his garments of white linen leave bare his brown limbs and the long ends of his red turban stream behind him.
The skeleton of a camel, which depicts death and old age, can be seen behind, glimmering in the moonlight, but is clearly ignored by the love and youth passing by.
Becker’s “The Beauty,” a 63.5 X 52.1 cm oil on canvas, is another of the notable paintings in the museum. It is a fascinating portrait of an Oriental woman with a colourful headdress topped with gemstones and flowers. Her captivating beauty made for an extraordinary portrait.
Wall upon wall of centuries-old Orientalist art can be enjoyed at the Orientalist Museum. The museum was first opened in 1996 and closed in 1998. It was reopened in 2006.
According to Azzam, the museum also lends some of its pieces to galleries abroad to be exhibited. He said the Tate Gallery recently borrowed three of its paintings to be exhibited abroad.
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