In July of 1798 Napoleon marched into Egypt with an army. He defeated the Turks at the battle of the Pyramids, stayed for a year and then was driven out by the British. In the small amount of time that he was there he managed to do what he did best: he changed everything.Following him came first a trickle and then a torrent of westerners into the Near and Middle East. The writers who wrote about their experiences and the artists who painted what they saw became known as the Orientalists. They traveled through Turkey, Iraq, Persia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Arabia and North Africa. With time this became an art movement and today we call it Orientalist art.
This movement spanned over a century and included hundreds of known artists. Many of them were giants of the art world and created beautiful paintings that seem almost photographic in detail. Many of them took incredible risks and endured considerable hardship. Disease was the greatest hazard and gun battles with bandits were commonplace. At other times they were received with the greatest kindness and made lasting friendships.
They came from all over the world: from England, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Russia, America, and Australia. Some of them specialized in landscapes, in archeological themes, or in people. Some of them were very religious and created biblical scenes, some specialized in military history. Others recorded the flora and fauna of the Near and Middle East. Encompassing many different painting styles and political leanings, the only generalization that can be made about them is that they were extremely diverse.
One common thread unites them; all who went were changed by the experience. From Charles Gleyre lying on the deck of a ship in the Mediterranean so sick that the captain and crew discussed if he were still alive or not, to Etienne Dinet making his pilgrimage to Mecca, the journey affected these men deeply. Some even died there and others remembered their travels with crystalline clarity to the end of their lives. As great art has the power to change the lives of the those who create it; so it has the power to change the lives of those of us who view it.