Jean Joseph Constant and the Portrayal of the Other through the Manipulative Orientalist Gaze

The sun is setting and it is a beautiful evening in Morocco. Sailboats can be observed sailing in the distant sea, and people are spending time on their terraces. In the foreground, four figures, male and female, occupy one of the terraces, simulating the leisurely behavior of others in the background. On the edge of the terrace, an olive skinned woman sits upright on an animal pelt, her feet dangling off the terrace while staring forward. Next to her, a dark-skinned figure, possibly a boy, wearing an orange hat, is lying on an oriental carpet; head downwards, his arm reaches down to a fruit tree. Sharing the carpet, an attractive woman with her palm resting on her chin, gazes into the horizon. The fourth man sits cross-legged while leaning forward as if he is trying to look at something in the distance.  Further back, a figure is seen looking out from a tower with a U-shaped balcony window, a motif typical of Islamic architecture.

This is the scene that visitors to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts come upon when looking at Benjamin Constant’s large-scale 1879 painting, Evening On the Terrace, Morocco (Fig. 1). While Constant, a nineteenth century French painter, reproduces a beautiful Oriental[1] landscape enriched with Islamic motifs, his portrayal of the North African men and women is of particular interest due to the manner in which the figures avoid the gaze of the viewer. For Westerners, this is perplexing because looking into the eyes can be used to “determine the inner nature of the soul behind the facade.”[2] Seeking to identify the faces, the viewer is captivated by the upright woman to the right, the only one whose face can be fully viewed. However, when observing her face one can see that her eyes have not been painted. Instead, a dark shadow veils her eyes creating a barrier between the viewer and the woman.  The viewer’s inability to confront the face of the figures represented raises the question of Constant’s motive, and the manner in which these characters are represented. Because of its Orientalist mannerisms, Evening on the Terrace serves as a visual example of nineteenth century colonialist understanding and desire of the Orient, through the portrayal of these figures as two-dimensional beings without consideration for their character.

This leads me to Edward Said’s critique of Western perceptions on the East. In his book Orientalism published in 1979, he argued that Orientalism was the means in which the West could dominate the East. He writes, “I myself believe that Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is a veridic discourse about the Orient.”[3] The West, as the dominant culture, would impose its views on the East. Said demonstrates this argument by explaining how the Orient was described as an exotic and mysterious land by the West. European writers, such as Gustave Flaubert, would reconstruct the Orient to mirror the European colonialist point of view. As authors, they had the ability to possess and manipulate the Orient and its people by becoming their voice.[4] Similarly to literature, nineteenth century European paintings would not be composed from the perspective of the Oriental. “For Said, Orientalism in Western literature is a mode of thought for defining, classifying, and expressing the presumed cultural inferiority of the Islamic Orient.”[5]

During colonial expansionism, many European artists took the opportunity to travel to Africa in search of new environments and inspiration. They were “looking for exotic peoples and places to depict in their works.”[6]Constant took the opportunity in 1872, when he was offered to follow the embassy of Charles Tissot. Common themes artists painted on these voyages were of violence, harems, and Oriental landscapes, which would have appealed to European taste for the exotic. For Constant, his paintings of the East were often focused on harems and scenes of violence. Prior to painting Evening on the Terrace, he had previously been awarded two medals, one for Prisonniers Marocains in 1875 and the other for Entrée de Mahomet II à Constantinople in 1876,[7] both of which depict scenes of violence and power. Contrarily, with Evening on the Terrace, Constant chooses to paint a romantic view of a Moroccan landscape. In Donald A. Rosenthal’s book, Orientalism: The Near East In French Painting 1800-1880, he writes, The unifying characteristic of nineteenth century Orientalism was its attempt at documenting realism,” and that “ Orientalism was an aspect of Romantic escapism […] for the restless and adventurous in spirit throughout the century.” [8]

Scenes of Arabs on terraces overlooking their land are a common theme in Constant’s paintings, and this subject matter would have resonated with the European desire for adventure. Other paintings similar to Evening on the Terrace are Arabian Nights, which depicts women sitting on a terrace at night gazing into to the distance, and On the Terrace, which portrays women in various poses on a terrace while a man looks on into the distant mountain. All three paintings demonstrate a desire for travel and exploration, which are communicated through the use of visual symbols such as the sea, the mountains, and the horizon. As well, Evening on the Terrace and On the Terrace both have figures looking in varying directions. In Evening on the Terrace, the characters are placed in a way that can remind the viewer of an arrow, such as the one in a compass suggesting the various coordinates the arrow can move to.

The positioning of the Arabs and the manner in which they are portrayed was also subjected to colonialist views. For example, the sitting woman’s position stands out from the painting, not only because her eyes have been blurred but because she gives an aura of power. Her stance is similar to another of Constant’s painting, The Throne Room In Byzantium (Fig. 2), where the empress is positioned in the same upright fashion. Although the empress does not have her arms placed forward, the positioning of the arms is closer in resemblance to that of the Egyptian sphinx. The sphinx would have been a figure familiar to Europeans of the time, as depictions of it could be found in European art, and sphinxes, along with pyramids, were important symbols of the East. Sphinxes, part human part lion, as Elmer G. Suhr explains, have two important features: one is that they are seen as mysterious creatures, and secondly that they are viewed as guardians.[9] Therefore, the women on Evening on the Terrace can be associated with these features. By being placed on the border of the terrace, she appears to be given the role of a guardian, and is consequently related to the power and mystery of the East. Additionally, relating this woman to a lioness would have been of interest to Europeans of the time, who compared human emotions and physiognomy to that of animals.[10]

Another complex figure is the young boy directly behind her. His face, also in shadow, reaches down with his arm to a fruit tree. By painting this dark skinned boy with his face in shadow, Constant is relating this boy to Africa as an unknown land. Africa was often represented by darkness in European literature, as can be seen in the writings of Joseph Conrad who refers to Africa as “The Heart of Darkness” in his book bearing the same name.  The boy’s action could be viewed as symbolic of the European reaching down to Africa in order to gain possession of its resources. “The reality of plant life in colonial situations was complex. Treated as a resource, plants may be shifted from their natural habitat and installed elsewhere to satisfy scientific, economic, or ornamental interests.”[11]  Therefore, the boy’s reaching hand, may have served as a way to entice Europeans to come to Africa in search of new resources.

The choice of the artist to impose European colonialist desires on its Oriental figures would certainly not have been seen as odd, due to the popularization of Orientalism in European culture. Many upper class Europeans enjoyed the pastime of dressing up as Orientals, giving them the opportunity to recreate the oriental scenes that they saw in paintings and read in literature. This was especially seen in the 18th century where “in Paris, turqueries became all the rage, a vogue that spread to the theatre, opera, interior decoration, fashion, romantic novels and painting.”[12] In the case of painting, aristocrats would commission artists to paint them in authentic Oriental dress, which they would have acquired from travelers. These aristocrats would live vicariously through these costumes, imagining themselves as exotic creatures, even if they themselves had never been to the East. However, even as Turqueries died down in the 19th century, aspects of Oriental clothing would continue to be fashionable.[13]

As to the identity of these characters, if we are to presume that Constant used Moroccan models, it is most likely the case that the women were prostitutes.  European artists who traveled to Islamic countries had great difficulty in obtaining models for their art. This is due to the Islamic belief that the act of capturing one’s likeness would attract the evil eye.[14] Many European artists would have to resort to using western women as models and dressing them in Oriental costume. Europeans were also restricted in their travels, only being allowed to visit certain locations, such as brothels and public spaces, since religious sites were forbidden. Therefore prostitutes, castaways of their society, were used as models in Oriental paintings due to their accessibility to Europeans.

While the models for Evening On The Terrace were most likely prostitutes, and possibly even slaves, they are not overtly sexualized. For example, in the harem scenes of Constant’s Afternoon Languor and La Danse du Foulard, there is at least one female gazing at the viewer in a seductive pose. In Evening On The Terrace, the figures do not appear as if their intent is to seduce the viewer, due to the lack of eye contact. The figures in this painting are preoccupied with their own world, unaware or unconcerned that they are being watched.

When Constant is painting these figures, it is as if he is invading their privacy. If the women were not prostitutes they should not have been painted, as Islamic women were highly secluded in their homes.  “The wife or wives, the children and the female servants would live in this secluded area of conviviality and feminine complicity. It was permissible for eunuchs and young male children of the family to enter but the code of modesty prohibited any male visitors.”[15] “Gardens, roof terraces and patios gave women a chance both to enjoy time outside the house and to take the air. These areas were still considered haram, sanctuaries in which women were safe from observation and which acted as a barrier between them and the outside world”[16] Additionally, if Constant did not have live models and instead painted this from his imagination or photographs, he is still re-creating a scene where the privacy of the Oriental is lost and becomes the object of the European’s gaze.

In Evening on the Terrace, our inability to view the characters’ faces clearly implies an absence of personal identity – especially if, as stated previously, the eyes give insight to the soul. The viewer is only given hints, such as facial profiles, attire and skin tones, which can give clues as to their racial and gendered identity. It is possible to tell that the painted figures come from different areas, due to the difference of attire and skin tone of the two females compared to that of the two males on the terrace. The profile of the lying woman is also quite different than that of the cross-legged male, for his nose is rounder and his profile is softer in shape compared to hers. This demonstrates that Constant is familiar with the different features of Africa’s people and put some effort into creating differentiation.

However, when it comes to understanding the personality and the inner emotion of these men and women, the viewer is faced with ambiguity. Based on what they are portrayed as doing, such as looking into the distance or trying to touch a tree, Constant is suggesting that they are curious people. The female is painted with her head leaning on her palm, which can suggest that she is in a dream like state. Lynne Thornton writes that, “ In many orientalist works, women loll against cushions doing nothing but idle the hours away, alone or gossiping with companions, day-dreaming (…)” This idleness was strikingly similar to the existence of the leisured society in the Western world at the time. [17]  It is possible that Constant has re-created this feeling of leisure and dreaming that his European viewers experienced, and imposed this behavior on the figures in Evening on the Terrace.

In painting, eyes have always been of great importance for imbuing character. In Orientalist painting, “Many artists drew attention to women’s eyes rimmed with the kohl to impact sparkle and mystery.”[18] By shadowing the eyes, Constant certainly creates an aura of mystery. At the time, this idea of mystery would have appealed to Europeans that did not have the opportunity to travel to the orient. However by doing so, the mystery given to the Oriental transforms them into two-dimensional beings. These figures become an idea and desire of colonialist views, instead of being revealed as complex individuals.

In the case of Oriental women, Europeans constantly denigrated them. This attitude is evident in the writing of Gustave Flaubert, where he states that the “Oriental woman is a machine, nothing more.”[19]  This impression of the Oriental woman most likely existed because Europeans were primarily in contact with prostitutes, as opposed to proper Oriental women who, for the most part, did not mingle with foreigners. The relationship between Europeans and Oriental prostitutes would have fostered the European attitude that Oriental women were only present to satisfy the sexual desires of others. As well, the secluded manner by which women lived could have made them appear as self-absorbed. According to Edward Said, some Orientalists would go so far as to believe that the “Arab” was incapable of true thought.[20]

Comparing Constant’s Orientalist art with his portraits of 19th century, Europeans can make a distinction in the portrayal of the eyes.  When Constant chooses to paint the eyes of the Arabs, they are often done in a painterly manner as can be seen in Portrait of An Arab Woman (Fig. 3). Her eyes are revealed, even if there is a shadow over them, but they are drawn as two diamond shapes with large black dots as pupils.  As for her eyebrows, they are reduced to two plain arches. In comparison, Portrait of Mme M.S Derviz (Fig.4) has much more character. Her eyes are realistically rendered, with white dots on the pupils giving them a sense of depth, her raised left eyebrow and cocked head give her a questioning air while she is shown playfully playing with her beaded necklace.

From these observations it can be said that Constant’s European portraits are dynamic in nature, while his Orientalist representations lack intellectual complexity. According to Dobie, the female oriental has been viewed as “ a figure of radical alterity,”[21]making her the object of uncertainty and demonstrating a lack of understanding from the European male. She writes, “Representations of Oriental women frequently disclose the existence of radical uncertainty within the order of knowledge, and therefore within hierarchical categories of social and racial identity.”[22] Hence, Constant is capable of portraying Europeans with depth because he is familiar with the European mind. However, with the Oriental, he does not understand, and therefore reduces his representations to mysterious two-dimensional beings.

In conclusion, the portrayal of the Orientals in Evening on the Terrace serves as an example of colonialist desire. These characters have been infused with the European’s desire for adventure, expansion, new resources and exoticness. There is no interest from Constant to portray these people as individuals, as they are reduced to merely symbols of the East, free to behold by the European gaze. By hiding their faces from view and veiling their eyes, Constant reaffirms Said’s position that Orientalism is a way in which the West believes itself to be superior and therefore can believe itself capable of dominating the East.

LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Benjamin, Roger. “ Matisse and Modernist Orientalism,” Oriental Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism  and French North Africa, 1880-1930. California: University of California Press, 2003.

Dobie, Madeleine. Foreign Bodies: Gender, Language, and Culture in French Orientalism.  California: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Kemp, Martin and Marina Wallace. “ Reading the Signs.” Spectacular Bodies: The Art and  Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, pp. 94-123. Berkeley: University of  California Press, 2000.

Rosenthal, Donald A. Orientalism: The Near East in French Painting 1800-1880. New York:  Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1982.

Said, Edward W., Orientalism. 25th Anniversary Ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Suhr, Elmer G. “The Sphinx.” Folklore Vol, 81, No 2 (Summer, 1970)

Thornton, Lynn. Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting. Paris: ACR International,1994.

Endnotes

[1] I use the term Oriental to describe the East and its people of Arab origin, which also includes North African countries. I am not referring to the “far East”.

[2] Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, “ Reading the Signs.” Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, pp. 94-123. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 94.

[3] Edward W. Said., Orientalism. (New York: Vintage Books, 1979),6.

[4] Said 6.

[5]  Donald A. Rosenthal, Orientalism: The Near East in French Painting 1800-1880 (New York: Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1982), 9.

[6] Rosenthal 27.

[7] Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, “ Prisoniers Marocains: Benjamin Constant,” Le ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, http://tiny.cc/nZBS6.

[8] Rosenthal 8.

[9] Elmer G. Suhr “The Sphinx.” Folklore .Vol, 81, No 2 (Summer, 1970, http://0-www.jstor.org.mercury.concordia.ca:80/stable/12589419),97.

[10] According to Kemp and Wallace’s essay

[11]  Roger. Benjamin, “ Matisse and Modernist Orientalism,” Oriental Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism and French North Africa, 1880-1930. (California: University of California Press, 2003), 254.

[12]  Lynn Thornton, Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting. (Paris: ACR International,1994), 5.

[13] Thornton 8.

[14] Benjamin 176.

[15] Thornton 21.

[16]  Thornton 40.

[17]  Thornton 28.

[18]  Thornton 82.

[19]  Madeleine Dobie, Foreign Bodies: Gender, Language, and Culture in French Orientalism. (California: Stanford University Press, 2001), 5.

[20] Said 310.

[21] Dobie 7.

[22] Dobie 9.