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Perceptions of the Middle East in 19th-Century Decorative Arts

February 22, 2023 Archive Insight

Central to understanding Western historical perceptions of the Middle and Near East in the arts is the concept of “Orientalism.” In decorative arts, Orientalism is the representation of Asian lives and arts as interpreted by Europeans and Americans. Westerners historically stereotyped these cultures as exotic, mysterious and sometimes decadent. Unlike the Far East, which was also viewed as distant, the Near and Middle East were more accessible for Europeans, and later, Americans who traveled there. In the early 19th century, European artists famously painted harem scenes and images of snake charmers for adoring audiences. By the end of the century, wealthy Americans were collecting these paintings and placing them in their parlors and sitting rooms. They also added souvenirs of travels, trade goods and even custom-made furnishings made in “Oriental” styles. Westerners could show off their worldliness, wealth and good taste by mixing and matching elements of “Oriental” culture together.

It is important to recognize that the objects highlighted in this blog are not an accurate representation of Middle or Near Eastern cultures but representations of European and American interpretation and appropriation that were used decoratively. Some objects may have originated in the Middle or Near East; however, they were often most likely created with European and American consumption in mind.

Library (General Barnes), 1890-1915
Library of General Barnes, Brooklyn, New York, about 1900. Photograph taken by Jenny Chandler Young. From the collections of The Henry Ford, gift of Betty R.K. Pierce.THF38610 Learn more about Jenny Chandler Young here.  

This documentary photograph taken by photojournalist Jenny Chandler Young is a great example of Orientalism in American interiors. We see General Barnes seated, looking off to our left. Directly in front of us in his mantelpiece crammed with exotic baubles. Some of my favorites are the East Asian ceramics. Also, note the large Buddha figure directly behind General Barnes and the incense burner to the right. On the mantelpiece, notice that the entire shelf is lined with a Near Eastern geometric carpet, from Turkey or Persia, which extends over the edge, making it fully visible to us. The bright colors and patterning would have appealed to Americans, as visual profusion was admired during the Victorian era. One of the most interesting items is the clock placed on the upper right side of the mantelpiece. Reminiscent of a mosque, the architectural form contains a dome at the top, with a clock face at the center and what appears to be a door below. This clock was made to appeal to the exotic and luxurious taste of folks like General Barnes.

Mixing and matching pieces from diverse cultures was the norm in late Victorian culture. There were examples of exclusively “Chinese” or “Moorish” rooms, but these were limited to those at the upper strata of society. In this blog, I would like to focus on how Americans viewed the Middle and Near East by highlighting specific examples.

Jambiya or Dagger from Morocco
Jambiya or dagger from Morocco, late 19th to early 20th century. / THF190754 

Jambiya or Dagger from Morocco, detail
Jambiya or dagger from Morocco, late 19th century to early 20th century, detail. / THF190757 

This was just the kind of object that General Barnes would have loved for his library. The jambiya is a dagger often worn by men across Middle Eastern cultures. The jambiya is often worn decoratively and historically is a sign of status; however, a dagger is ultimately a weapon. This jambiya was decorative, flashy and very exotic to European Americans in the late 19th century — just the thing General Barnes would want to show off to his friends. The intricate chasing on the brass scabbard would have appealed to Victorians as well as the Arabic script — which is untranslatable — leading us to believe that this was made in Morocco for the Western tourist trade.

Settee from “Turkish” Parlor Set
Settee from “Turkish” parlor set, 1885-1895. / THF99623 

Armchair from "Turkish" Parlor Set
Armchair from "Turkish" parlor set, 1885-1895. / THF154405 

Platform Rocker from "Turkish" Parlor Set
Platform rocker from "Turkish" parlor set, 1885-1895. / THF38839 

Parlor Suite
Interior, Brooklyn, New York, 1890-1915. Photograph taken by Jenny Chandler Young. From the collections of The Henry Ford, gift of Betty R.K. Pierce. / THF38417 

This “Turkish” parlor suite was made for the type of interior shown in the photo above. In fact, one of the chairs in the foreground has trim like the trim on this “Turkish” armchair. The idea, like everything we have been discussing, is profusion of ornament, not necessarily fidelity to the culture or even the Middle Eastern design aesthetic.

The Arabesque

Within the concept of this “Oriental” or Middle Eastern design aesthetic, Westerners borrowed specific elements, the most important of which was the Arabesque. Simply put, the Arabesque was a style of decoration characterized by intertwining plants and abstract curvilinear motifs. It dates to the beginnings of Islam when representational forms were restricted in religious imagery. By the Renaissance, European artists and designers were fascinated by the lush and luxurious forms of the Arabesque and appropriated it to their liking. In the 19th century, these lush, interlaced forms, recognizably Middle Eastern in origin, graced interiors through wallpaper, fabrics and surface decoration.  

Glass Tile, 1900-1910, Made by Tiffany Furnaces
Glass tile, 1900-1910, made by Tiffany Furnaces, Corona, Long Island, New York. / THF186047 

The purest example of an Arabesque pattern in our collection, this iridescent glass tile was made by the great designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). In his youth, Tiffany traveled throughout the Middle East and North Africa observing the culture. Islamic and Near Eastern design became part of Tiffany’s aesthetic. This tile was intended to form part of a decorative box.  

Geometric and Floral Wallpaper Sample
Geometric and floral wallpaper sample, 1865-1880. / THF67934 

Notice how the fluid, botanical forms from the Tiffany tile are abstracted in this wallpaper.

Floral Wallpaper Sample
Floral wallpaper Sample, 1870-1890. / THF190055 

This design is also derived from the Arabesque, but the floral elements here are more naturalized.  

Kerosene Table Lamp
Kerosene table lamp, 1865-1875. / THF190215 

Arabesques can even be seen in the surface patterning of this ornate kerosene lamp base. These would have been used and admired in fashionable parlors and libraries, such as the examples at the beginning of this blog. 

Starburst Wallpaper Sample
Starburst wallpaper sample, 1865-1880 / THF190076 

Although not an Arabesque, this geometric pattern was sourced in “Oriental” or Middle Eastern design and was likely used as a ceiling wallpaper. How would you like to fall asleep looking up at this in your bedroom! 

Art Glass BowlArt glass bowl, made by Emil Larsen, 1920-1930. / THF163640 

Vase, Made by Tiffany Studios
Vase, made by Tiffany Studios, 1901-1905. / THF163599 

This early 20th-century bowl and vase owe their surface decoration to the influence of Arabesques and Islamic design in general. In fact, Louis Comfort Tiffany developed a chemical process to re-create the iridescence he found on ancient Roman glass during his travels in the Middle East.  

I hope you have enjoyed a quick look at how Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries adapted and repurposed Middle Eastern and Islamic design to suit their tastes. Some of this is obvious, such as the use of visible artifacts like the carpet on General Barnes’ mantelpiece. Others, such as the abstracted Arabesques in wallpapers, provide quite an insight once we understand their inspiration. All these objects give us a glimpse into the European colonial mindset. Ornate European and American rooms overflowing with items from around the world exemplify the constant consumption and interpretation of other cultures to represent wealth and supremacy. This often provided little benefit or would even have a cost to the culture these styles claimed to appreciate. Understanding a piece's origin, whether a perfect copy or a drop of distant inspiration, can help us understand the history of our connections between cultures in an increasingly global world. 

Charles Sable is the curator of decorative arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, office administrator for historical resources at The Henry Ford, for additions and editorial preparation assistance with this post.  



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