Asian Women and Culture in Orientalism

The book cover of Edward Said's "Orientalism" in 1978 (photo from pocolit.com). The book gives insight on Said's research of what Orientalism is.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Orientalism was a popular trend in art where Western artists painted representations of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures within their work. The term Orientalism itself was originally developed by Edward Said, a literature professor who published a book titled Orientalism in 1978. Two great examples of Orientalism art are Gustave Leonard de Jonghe’s The Japanese Fan and Joseph Rodefer DeCamp’s The Red Kimono. Both are oil paintings on canvas focusing on a woman wearing a kimono. In addition, they both feature a bird. In The Japanese Fan, the white bird seems to be in flight, while in The Red Kimono the blue bird sits on the table looking up at the woman. Yet, the birds are important to Jonghe and DeCamp’s work because both women are looking away from the viewer and at the birds. This raises questions of what the focus of the painting is because we have two different points of view. Are we viewing the women’s or the artist’s perspective? Traveling writer John Stughton wrote in his Science ABC article, “In the framework of Orientalism, the women in the East were overly sexualized, deviant and disloyal, eager for the virality of Western men.” Characterizing women as overly sexual, deviant, and disloyal lends them to being labeled as “the other”—which is “the Orient.” Therefore, Jonghe and DeCamp don’t hesitate to paint lavishing bodies of work consisting of women surrounded by wealth. As artists, they manage to slip in imagery of freedom presented to each of the women as she is pictured in  frame with a bird.  

The Japanese Fan and The Red Kimono are currently both displayed at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida, and their main focus is the women in kimonos. Despite kimonos being traditional Japanese undergarments for upper-class women, they are also prime examples of Orientalism as Asian women in Orientalist artwork are often seen in them. Kelly Richman-Abdou and Margherita Cole wrote how “the Kimono captures the exquisite elegance of Japanese culture and design, proving that clothing can be much more than meets the eye.” Following their claim, they further acknowledge how kimonos are valued for their symbolism, which is embedded with motifs, style, and color. The goal behind these features for a kimono is “to reveal the identity of the wearer.”

Portrait of American artist and educator, Joseph Rodefer DeCamp, who painted The Red Kimono (photo from Wiki Art: Visual Art Encyclopedia).
The Red Kimono, 1919 by Joseph Rodefer DeCamp (photo by Curatorial Intern in ART at the Cummer Museum).
 

So, what are the identities of the women? Looking at Jonghe and DeCamp’s paintings, both women are wearing different colored kimonos and living in a lavish environment. Thus, indicating they are in good fortune. To be more specific, the woman in The Japanese Fan is wearing a white floral printed kimono and the woman in The Red Kimono is wearing a deep red kimono. Jonghe had painted an unidentified woman, who according to the Cummer Museum, says, “The woman, who clearly is a fan of all things Japanese, is the center of the activity in the painting.” By Jonghe surrounding the woman in Japanese material and style, he has depicted Orientalism perfectly. However, of all the pretty things in their rooms, the women in both paintings are fixated on a bird. Their gaze brings up questions for viewers. Perhaps these women are unhappy? But how can they be unhappy being surrounded by wealth? Then again, perhaps they're trapped in their environments. As mentioned, considering both paintings were done in 1865 and 1919 respectfully, the women more than likely obtained their wealth through marriage. Thus, making it difficult to truly express themselves. Rather, as the paintings foretell, these women are victims of their own difficult social status.

A rare portrait of Flemish artist Gustave Leonard de Jonghe, who painted The Japanese Fan (photo from Chastelain & Butes).
The Japanese Fan, 1865 by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe (photo by Cummer Museum Admin, Director of Art Education in ART).

The birds they see are a representation of freedom—a metaphor for women’s limited freedom. Interestingly, like the women themselves, the birds are different in both paintings. In The Japanese Fan the bird is large and white, a cockatoo according to the Cummer Museum, preaching above the woman on her backdrop. The fact the cockatoo expands its wings indicates a desire for freedom. Moreover, in The Red Kimono  the bird is small and blue sitting on a water bowl, looking up at the woman. Nevertheless, the birds are not the only form of imagery. It continues further through the backgrounds of both paintings. Between the woman and the cockatoo in Jonghe’s painting, there’s a Japanese screen. The screen depicts a graphic image of two Asian individuals, a man, and a woman, and the man is aggressively pulling the woman by her throat. Thus, clearly representing domestic violence because from the viewer’s gaze as the woman cannot escape from the man grasping her. The woman in the kimono is aware of the violent art on the screen. Hence, she’s walking away from the art and toward the white bird expanding its wings. DeCamp took a different approach by providing an empty birdcage in the top left corner of the painting's frame. The woman in the red kimono is staring down at the bird, ignoring the empty cage. One can infer that since the bird is free from the cage, perhaps one day she may be as well—at least she yearns for it.

 

Jonghe and DeCamp’s paintings are true examples of Orientalism. They’ve incorporated Japanese style and art in their backgrounds and women’s clothing. Through these paintings, we're getting the male perspective of how they viewed women of Asian culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The women they painted are seen as just beautiful objects surrounded by beautiful things. Yet, one can infer their gaze says it all—they yearn for freedom. Captivating a viewer's perspective during difficult times in history, especially when it consists of racism and gender equality, the paintings really contribute to the beauty of art. For the art community today, viewers will gain another perspective and representation of Asian culture through Orientalism.


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