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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Imagining Movement: Orientalist Paintings and Photographs of Middle Eastern Dancers


by Kristen D. Windmuller (Najla)




Table of Contents




Belly dancers often complain when they hear someone say, "I saw belly dancers in a James Bond movie, and in Sex and the City, so that's how they must be!" As an art historian and belly dancer, I feel the same when I hear a fellow dancer say, "I saw it in a Gérôme or Delacroix painting, so that's how dancers must have been back then!"

Just as Hollywood and the mainstream media took great liberties with their portrayals of Middle Eastern dancers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, so too did nineteenth century Orientalist painters. While the works of the Orientalist painters and historic photographs of dancers can be great inspirations, dancers should take them with a grain of salt when considering them as factual source material. Like many works of art, Orientalist paintings blend fantasy with fact, making them complex sources for those seeking “authentic” imagery.



What Is Orientalism?

As it was originally defined in the eighteenth century, Orientalism was simply the “study of the Orient,” which generally encompassed the Middle East and North Africa, and sometimes China or Japan. Today, Orientalism, as critically defined by Edward Said in his classic 1978 text, is the romanticization of the Other as primitive, exotic and even barbaric in order to justify the Western desire to expand colonial empires and hold power. (1)

In our case, the Other is any member of Middle Eastern culture in comparison to someone from the West, such as America, France, or Great Britain. Western colonizing countries believed that the West was the very opposite of its Other, the East, and to that end, created stereotypes of the Middle East that included harems of decadent heathen dancing girls. The West denied the great cultural, scholarly and economic achievements of the Middle East to justify its colonies and empires, which were promoted as “civilizing efforts” bringing technology and advancement to supposedly underdeveloped peoples. Consequently, most Western knowledge and understanding of the Middle East was not based on facts, but on Orientalist stereotypes recorded by soldiers, scholars, travellers and colonial officials. Books, paintings, and even scientific and historic texts reflect a bias for supporting these pro-colonial prejudices. It's as if the Westerners saw and recorded what they wanted (or needed) to see rather than what was actually there.



What Are Orientalist Paintings?

Simply put, Orientalist paintings are depictions of the East (specifically the Middle East and North Africa) by professional European artists who were generally trained at the academies. Paintings and decorative arts in non-European styles — Japonism (Japanese), Chinoiserie (Chinese), Turquerie (Turkish) — had become popular as early as the fifteenth century, and continued to be in vogue well into the eighteenth and nineteenth century when art-school trained academic painters began painting canvases of “Oriental” scenes. La Societé des Peintres Orientalistes ("Society of Orientalist Painters") was created in France in 1893, and “a pour but de favoriser les études artistiques conçues sous l'inspiration des pays et des civilisations d'Orient et d'Extrème-Orient" (2). The society held a salon to exhibit its members’ works and awarded a medal for young artists residing in French North Africa. Orientalist painters were most common in France and England, mostly because of those countries’ colonial efforts in Egypt and North Africa.

Egypt filled with French tourists, troops and writers after Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 invasion, a European presence that endured after the country came under British control in 1882. Before, and later in tandem, with the invention of modern photography in 1839, Orientalist painters were among the first artists to record images of the Middle East and its dancers, albeit through the lens of Westerners whose observations were often clouded by imperialist and Orientalist ideals. (3) While early paintings may have recounted “authentic” dances, dance throughout North Africa was markedly and rapidly changed by European presence, and by the mid- to late nineteenth century, the dancers’ costumes had transformed from long-sleeved dresses worn over pantaloons to spangled and decorated two-piece costumes that revealed the stomach, the ventre at the center of so many European fantasies. (4)

Though Orientalist paintings did have a documentary function, as described by curator David Rosenthal, they also served as colonialist propaganda and as sources of titillation, promoting Western domination over Middle Eastern lands and people, particularly women. (5) Orientalist paintings, primarily made and exhibited in the West, encouraged these fantasies through their depictions of nude and semi-nude dancers, odalisques, snake charmers and other archetypical Middle Eastern stereotypes placed in markets, harems, slave auctions, mosques, genre scenes and palaces, all immune to the changes of time according to the Western painters. Art historian Linda Nochlin noted that all indicators of Middle Eastern change or contact with the outside world—including the Western painters themselves—were never depicted in favor of an imaginary, timeless Oriental world. (6)

Some of the best-known Orientalist painters include Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Géricault, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jean-Léon Gérôme, though many others painted in this style. The work of Gérôme will be used here as a case study of how Orientalist paintings were created, and how theories of Orientalism, photographic technology and stereotypes of women affected their depictions of Middle Eastern dancers. Many paintings by Gérôme and other Orientalists depict dancing women called “almeh,” “almée” or “Ghawazee” (Figure 1, Dance of the Almeh, 1863) It is worth taking a moment to discuss the significance of those terms.

The word ‘awâlim (singular alma), originally meant a learned women or female scholar who sang, wrote music and poetry, and danced in private along with other women. Europeans in Egypt confused these women with Ghawazee, dancers who performed without veils in both public and private spaces. ‘Awâlim and Ghawazee were also confused with lower-class singers and dancers, and with registered prostitutes, some who also danced to advertise themselves or make extra money. Late eighteenth century European travel writing initiated widespread confusion of the terms, which was augmented by increasingly racy performances staged by the Egyptians for French and English audiences. In the eyes of Europeans, Alma no longer meant “learned woman” by the early nineteenth century, but instead denoted a “singer-dancer;” by the 1850s it meant “dancer-prostitute” and was used as a catchall term for any woman who danced.

Figure 1 - Jean-Léon Gérôme, Dance of the Almeh, 1863. Click the thumbnail below for the link.



How Did Artists Create Orientalist Paintings?

The female dancing body — not just the belly dancing body, but most frequently the ballerina’s body — was fetishized in the nineteenth century; therefore, interest in dancers' bodies as erotic icons must also be taken into account in depictions of non-Western dancers. (8) Many considered images of dancers, who received money for the public display of their bodies and sometimes also worked as prostitutes, titillating.

As photography scholar Anne McCauley notes, the technology of early photography did not allow for accurate depictions of the body in motion. Slow exposure time, the limitations of studio settings and other factors meant that dancers — and those depicting dancers in photographs — posed standing still for nearly all images until the advent of faster shutter and film speeds. Understanding that almost all of the early photographs of “Middle Eastern dancers,” including those used by Orientalist painters, were posed, means that we cannot assume that they accurately depict a dance, movement or costume that was used at the time. As present-day dancers know, even with the latest digital technology, it can be difficult to capture the “truth” of a dance or movement on camera, and in fact, many of us choose to pose in our best costumes and makeup for publicity photographs because of the difficulty of finding quality images taken during live performances.

After the advent of photography, many artists used photographs of nude and clothed models as the basis of their studies of the human form, though they disputed photography’s artistic merits. Paintings were not necessarily colorized photographs, though the degree to which artists based their work on photographs depended on a case-by-case basis. Some artists used photographs to approximate poses, while others used grid systems to transfer images to canvas. In most cases, final canvases were the result of composites of multiple sources.

When easily produced paper negatives were created in 1851, images called photographic académies (after the life model classes at the art académies) surged in popularity. (9) Though it is often believed that photographs depict that truth because they are indexical in nature (in other words, they capture an image of something that was physically there), not all photographs are as factual as they may seem. Photographic depictions of “Oriental women” were often sheer fantasies or haphazard affairs thrown together in European studios.

Working with paper negatives circa 1852, French photographer Gustave le Gray created a series of images of a woman in “Arab costume,” possibly as a commission for an Orientalist painter (Figure 2). A comparison with other photographs by le Gray reveals that the woman’s costume is not Middle Eastern, but the studio drapes wrapped around her body! It is also likely that the woman is not Middle Eastern, as most artists’ models and photographic models in Europe were white women of European descent; many were Italian.

Artists’ models were often prostitutes. Like the non-white women of the Middle East whose bodies were available for living out sexual fantasies in “livres galantes” by European authors such as Gustave Flaubert, the bodies of the models were considered available to the artists who employed them, reinforcing the dominance over women inherent in Orientalist paintings. (10) The sexual encounters in these books were explicit and often pornographic, motifs that were reflected in nineteenth century ethnographic and pornographic photographs of non-white colonial subjects, and to a less explicit degree, in the titillating Orientalist nudes and semi-nude paintings. (11) Exposing the body reveals it for all to see, understand, and — eventually — dominate.

Figure 2 - Gustave Le Gray, « Épreuve obtenue avec un négatif sur papier préparé avec l'iodure, le cyanure et le fluorure de potassium en 8 secondes à l'ombre », papier salé, v. 1850, 14 x 10,3 cm (album Regnault, n°68), coll. SFP. Click the thumbnail below for the link.
Arab Costume

Orientalist artists and writers mixed, confused, and elaborated upon source material just as easily as they did terminology for the subjects they painted. Like all artists, they incorporated a variety of source material based on both first-hand experience and their own imagination. Though he dismissed the possibility of photography as art, Jean-Léon Gérôme is a particularly well-documented example of an Orientalist painter who combined photographic sources with his first-hand sketches, paintings and memories of travels through the Middle East. Jean-Leon Gérôme’s picking and choosing of information from multiple sources coincides with artistic practices of the time. These practices strove towards depicting humans with classically ideal bodies based on Greek and Roman statues, promoting picking and choosing parts from live models of photographic studies to make the perfect figure. While this in no way makes his paintings less worthy of admiration, it does make them less reliable as historical, completely factual sources from which to base recreations of dances or dance costumes.

Gérôme first visited Egypt in 1857 with sculptor and calotypist Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi. (12) Bartholdi photographed their trip, and Gérôme later used these images to create photo-collages on which to base the backdrops of his Orientalist paintings. On a later trip to Egypt in 1867-68, Gérôme made his own photographs using the dry collodion process, taking images of everything from the details of mosques to larger studies of architecture. (13) Gérôme’s images were printed on paper as albumen prints, a process using egg-whites to fix an image to paper; the resulting images were sepia (brown-gray) toned, leaving the painter to add colors to his paintings according to his preparatory sketches and paintings, but also to his memories and imagination.

Many, if not all, of Gérôme’s best-known Orientalist paintings were painted while the artist was in Europe, meaning that his works reflected a fixed idea of the Middle East, unreflective of changes that may have occurred between the time of his visits and the time of his paintings. Nonetheless, most Orientalists chose to depict the Middle East as a picturesque space immune to change, regardless of where they worked. (14) The underlying goals of Orientalist paintings — colonialist propaganda and social-sexual power dynamics — are important factors that affected how artists chose to depict their subjects. The bare-breasted almeh of Gérôme’s much-reproduced 1863 Dance of the Almeh (Figure 1 above) may have accurately reflected dress of the era, but it also served as a method to expose the non-white female body to the gaze of the white, male viewer, a body to which Gérôme himself expressed sexual attraction. (15) The role of coercion and domination — both sexual and colonial — must of course be considered in this interaction and its subsequent recording.

In one case, it is confirmed that Gérôme based one of his paintings on a photographic model. He approached the renowned French photographer Félix Nadar for a photograph of a nude model upon which to base his painting of the Greek story of the courtesan Phryne (Figure 3, Phryne revealed before the Areopagus, 1861). (16) Though more research needs to be done on Gérôme’s use of photographic studies of the model, it is possible that he — like other Orientalist painters — used photographs of models to create paintings of almées, odalisques and harem girls. McCauley notes that “the subtle tonal gradations, topographically accurate landscapes, and unidealized facial expressions in Gérôme’s own works of the late 1860s strongly suggest photographic borrowings.” (17)

Figure 3 - Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1861, Phryne revealed before the Areopagus. Click the thumbnail bellow for the link.
Gérôme did not complete any of his paintings while in the Middle East: two of his most reproduced “almeh paintings,” Dance of the Almeh (1863) (Figure 1 above) and Almeh Performing the Sword Dance (Figure 4, c. 1870s) were painted in Europe between or after these trips, respectively.
Figure 4 - Jean-Léon Gérôme, c. 1873 Almeh Performing the Sword Dance. Click the thumbnail below for the link.



Closing Thoughts

Just as we stage our own publicity photographs to put forth a certain image of ourselves as performers, we must acknowledge that photographers and painters used staging to create specific images of dancers and other Middle Easterners in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All biases must be considered, and in the case of Orientalist paintings and early photographs of dancers, we must consider the historical context in which these images were made and the purposes they served rather than considering them as documentary evidence of truth.



End Notes

  1. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).
  2. “Has for its goal to encourage artistic studies conceived under the inspiration of countries and civilizations of the East and the Far East.” "Société Des Peintres Orientalistes Français," Le comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, (accessed February 1, 2012)
  3. Virginia Keft-Kennedy, "Representing the Belly-Dancing Body: Feminism, Orientalism, and the Grotesque," (PhD, School of English Literatures, Philosophy, and Languages, University of Wollongong), 56-57,
  4. Like all dances, Middle Eastern dance evolves for a variety of reasons. For the purposes of this paper, the “authentic” dances will be referred to only in order to historically situate the changes brought about by European presence. For a discussion of the idea of authenticity, see Leona Wood and Anthony Shay, "Danse Du Ventre: A Fresh Appraisal," Dance Research Journal 8, no. 2 (1976): 22-24.
  5. Linda Nochlin, "The Imaginary Orient," in The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society (Colorado: Westview Press, 1989), 33, 42-3.
  6. Ibid., 37
  7. Karin van Nieuwkerk, "Changing Images and Shifting Identities: Female Performers in Egypt," in Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader, eds. Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 137.; Karin van Nieuwkerk, A Trade Like any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995), 26-7, 31.
  8. See Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "The Legs of the Countess," October 39 (Winter, 1986): pp. 65-108, for a discussion of the fetishization of the ballerina and the legs of the dancer.
  9. Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Industrial Madness : Commercial Photography in Paris, 1848-1871 (New Haven: New Haven : Yale University Press 1994, 1994), 154.
  10. Nochlin, The Imaginary Orient, 42.
  11. Philippa Levine, "States of Undress: Nakedness and the Colonial Imagination," Victorian Studies 50, no. 2 (Winter 2008, 2008): 198,
  12. Calotyping is another early photographic process.
  13. Anne McCauley, ""the most Beautiful of Nature's Works:" Thomas Eakins's Photographic Nudes in their French and American Contexts," in Eakins and the Photograph: Works by Thomas Eakins and His Circle in the Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, eds. Susan Danly and Cheryl Leibold (Washington, DC: Published for the Academy by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 31-32.
  14. Nochlin, The Imaginary Orient, 51. 37
  15. In her 2005 dissertation on the role of the almeh in painting, Rihab Kassatly Bagnole quotes from a book by Charles Moreau-Vauthier that includes Gérôme’s autobiographical notes about a wedding he saw in Damascus in 1862. The quote reads: “Many women were seated on rich sofas inside an elegant room smoking the nargileh. Their costumes were opened on the chest and their breasts were covered with thin gauze: this scene would have made it hard to resist even for people who were less desirous than we, who no longer knew to which saint we should worship…” [translation by Bagnole, original French from Gérôme’s notes, as published by Moreau-Vauthier in 1906 in Gérôme peintre et sculpteur] (Grand nombre de femmes fumant le narguilé étaient assises sur de riches divans dans des salles d’une architecture très élégante. Leur costume était complètement ouvert sur la poitrine et les seins voilés seulement d’une gaze translucide: spectacle capable d’affriander des gens moins affamés que nous ne l’étions, de sorte que nous ne savions plus à quel saint nous vouer…”). Rihab Kassatly Bagnole, "Imagining the Almeh: Transformation and Multiculturalization of the Eastern Dance in Painting, Theatre, and Film, 1850-1950" (Doctor of Philosophy, College of Fine Arts of Ohio University), 73.
  16. Fluid Flesh: The Body, Religion and the Visual Arts / Barbara Baert (Ed.), eds. Barbara Baert and Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography and Visual Studies. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, c2009, 113.
  17. McCauley, "The most Beautiful of Nature's Works:" Thomas Eakins's Photographic Nudes in their French and American Contexts, 32.




Fluid Flesh: The Body, Religion and the Visual Arts / Barbara Baert (Ed.), edited by Barbara Baert, Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography and Visual Studies Leuven, Belgium : Leuven University Press, 2009.

"Société Des Peintres Orientalistes Français." Le comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques. (accessed February 1, 2012).

Bagnole, Rihab Kassatly. "Imagining the Almeh: Transformation and Multiculturalization of the Eastern Dance in Painting, Theatre, and Film, 1850-1950." Doctor of Philosophy, College of Fine Arts of Ohio University, 2005.

Keft-Kennedy, Virginia. "Representing the Belly-Dancing Body: Feminism, Orientalism, and the Grotesque," PhD, School of English Literatures, Philosophy, and Languages, University of Wollongong, 2005.

Levine, Philippa. "States of Undress: Nakedness and the Colonial Imagination." Victorian Studies 50, no. 2 (Winter 2008, 2008): 189-219.

McCauley, Anne. ""the most Beautiful of Nature's Works:" Thomas Eakins's Photographic Nudes in their French and American Contexts." In Eakins and the Photograph: Works by Thomas Eakins and His Circle in the Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, edited by Susan Danly and Cheryl Leibold, 23-64. Washington, DC: Published for the Academy by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

McCauley, Elizabeth Anne. Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris, 1848-1871.: New Haven : Yale University Press, 1994.

Nochlin, Linda. "The Imaginary Orient." In The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society, 33-59. Colorado: Westview Press, 1989.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. "The Legs of the Countess." October 39, (Winter, 1986): pp. 65-108.

van Nieuwkerk, Karin. "Changing Images and Shifting Identities: Female Performers in Egypt." In Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader, edited by Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

———. "A Trade Like any Other:" Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Wood, Leona and Anthony Shay. "Danse Du Ventre: A Fresh Appraisal." Dance Research Journal 8, no. 2 (1976): 18-30.



About the Author

Najla (Kristen D. Windmuller) is an Egyptian-style dancer and instructor based in New York City. Her shows and classes focus not only on the joy, entertainment, and excitement of dance, but also on presenting Middle Eastern dance in a positive and culturally informed light. Her dance writing and research has recently been featured in several dance publications and conferences.

She is a doctoral student in the Department of Art and Archeology at Princeton University and holds a BA in Art History from Yale University. Her academic research focuses on African art history and dance history, with a particular interest in cross-cultural exchange.

More information about Najla appears on her web site at

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Najla by Joseph Luna, New York City.




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