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6 The Oriental and the exotic

6.1 Oriental literature

As part of this section you will be studying the material in a video, Eugene Delacroix: The Moroccan Journey. Before doing this, however, it will be useful to look at some of the factors that affected his treatment of the Oriental and the exotic in art. His choice of the Sardanapalus theme, for example, was probably the result of a complex web of cultural influences that acquired new significance in the context of French Romanticism. In many respects, Delacroix’s conception of the Oriental had already been constructed for him by generations of French thinkers, writers, decorators and artists.

The interest of French writers in the Orient had been apparent since the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605–89), for example, had explored Turkey, Persia and the Indies, while in 1711 Jean Chardin (1643–1713) had published in French his Journey to Persia and the East Indies. The work of explorers such as these had fuelled, in the eighteenth century, a strain of Orientalist literature that presented the East both as a world of sensuous delight and as an indirect critique of French society and government. Writers exploited a distancing, Oriental ‘cover’ in order to express ideas that would have offended government censors. Montesquieu’s fictional Persian Letters (1721) used the device of two Persians visiting France and writing to those back at home in order to criticise French Catholicism, the French monarchy, aristocracy and social fashions. In 1748 Diderot’s licentious novel, Indiscreet Jewels, based its narrative on Mangogul, sultan of the Congo, who, bored with life in his sumptuous palace, sets about amusing himself and his mistress Mirzoza by using a magic ring that makes all the ‘jewels’ (slang for vaginas) of the women associated with his court tell their individual stories. From these stories there emerges a rational critique of Catholic attitudes to sex and marriage that Diderot developed even further in his Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage (1772). In this work Diderot uses the travel accounts of the explorer Bougainville, who had visited Tahiti, to set out a case for more liberal attitudes to sexual relations than those supported by the Catholic Church and (superficially or officially) by his own society.

By the end of the eighteenth century enlightened rational critique played less of a role in Orientalist literature, which focused more on the Orient as a source of sensuous delight. Bernadin de Saint Pierre’s Paul and Virginie (1788) revels in the perfume, shape and colour of the flora and fauna of Mauritius, where the novel’s love story is based. Descriptions of the exotic environment are inextricably bound with those of the central couple’s emotional states. This attention to visual intricacy, authenticating detail and local colour, primarily intended to delight and entertain the eye rather than to serve any obvious utilitarian function within a composition, is a later, less English manifestation of the picturesque. Delacroix liked to incorporate intriguing details in many of his works, particularly sparkling costume details, although these were often painted loosely rather than precisely. When, in 1832, he travelled to Morocco, he described the country as ‘picturesque’ and devoted a great deal of time to recording the visual feast it offered. This concern with picturesque detail was nourished by a renewed scholarly interest in the East.