Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism

From Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in His Time
January 31 to May 31, 2015

The Museum is hanging the sun on its walls with this exhibition on Orientalism, a first for Canada, based on extensive original research. The show unveils the forgotten figure of a master of the genre, Benjamin-Constant…

Following in the footsteps of artists like Delacroix, whom he admired, this flamboyant painter’s Orientalism is similar to that of Henri Regnault, Mariano Fortuny, Georges Clairin and Jean-Paul Laurens, who also figure largely in the exhibition. Appropriating the stereotypes of a colonial Near East, Benjamin-Constant alternated indolent odalisques and fierce Moors in his large-scale paintings

The exhibition reveals six iconic aspects of Orientalism, offering a dual reading of its fictional subjects, juxtaposing staged pictorial settings with documented realities. Drawings and photographs round out this exploration of Moorish Spain and sharifian Morocco, between seductive mirages and the hidden realities of a colonial republic.

Exhibition Layout

The Strategies of the Orientalist Studio

As an inescapable subject for literature and painting in the nineteenth century, the studio became a venue for fashionable receptions and a sales gallery for the painter. Visits were made by appointment.

Benjamin-Constant, the dandy and celebrated artist, elegantly monocled, hosted the cream of the European aristocracy to carry out business transactions amid an impressive clutter of mysterious and magically shimmering Oriental objects: multicoloured rugs, stuffed animals, inlaid suits of armour.

In the course of the century, the painter’s studio, an alternative to the official exhibitions of the Salon and widely reproduced in prints and photographs, became a fixed image in the public imagination. Its theatrical staging, the exoticism of the bazaar combined with the reality of souvenirs, constituted for the artist a showcase as much as a locus for inspiration, a studio designed to be toured.

From Delacroix to Gérôme, the studio became the decor. Rather than a secret laboratory for creation like Rodin’s workshop, it was to become the microcosm for receptions orchestrated by artists like Van Dongen and Warhol in the twentieth century. 

Tête de Maure

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. Head of a Moor, about 1875, oil on paper mounted on canvas. 45 x 35 cm. Collection Mr. Laurence Graff. Photo Courtesy Mr. Laurence Graff

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, Afternoon in the Harem, 1880, oil on wood. 55 x 36.8 cm. Collection Kenneth Jay Lane. Photo Richard. P. Goodbody

The Salon, the Near East in History

“The Salon is our only means of dissemination. Through it, we achieve honour, glory and money. For many of us, it is our livelihood,” wrote Benjamin-Constant.

For a young history painter, a rite of passage in getting oneself noticed was to present at the Salon a “grande machine,” a tour de force piece that would attract attention in an exhibition crammed with thousands of canvases. As a result, confusion reigned between history painting in the grand style and large sensationalist canvases.

Benjamin-Constant was soon able to earn his living by selling works to the State. The exhibition displays several of these monumental canvases, restored and lent especially for this occasion. The leading light of the circle of Toulousian painters in Paris was Jean-Paul Laurens. A prime mover behind the revival of history painting under the Third Republic, Laurens specialized in exotic, even barbarous, at times macabre episodes from the Byzantine and Medieval periods.

His erudition, magnified by monumental settings, favoured scenes before or after the main action took place, suspended moments of tension or meditation. Benjamin-Constant admired his personal vision of the tragedies of history, depicting a picturesque brutality yet possessing great substance.

– Benjamin-Constant about Tangier

The Alhambra, Antechamber to the Near East

Until the Romantic era, Spain counted for little in the European imagination. However, this antechamber to the Near East became an indispensable destination with the rediscovery of Andalusia and its rich Hispano-Moorish heritage.

The Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny, an enthusiastic collector of Islamic art, set up his studio there and was joined by other artists who were passing through, including his friends Regnault, Clairin and Benjamin-Constant. Fascinated by the decorative abundance of polychrome stucco and also by the Romantic stories of Washington Irving and Chateaubriand, they executed dazzling and sanguinary paintings.

Tangier, the Charm of the White City

Only a few kilometres from Spain, from which it is separated by the Strait of Gibraltar, Tangier was nicknamed the “City of Foreigners” because of its historic cosmopolitanism.

Tangier attracted an ever-growing number of international artists, from the pioneers Delacroix and Dehodencq to Matisse and the Canadian painter Morrice. Tapiro, Fortuny, Regnault and Clairin spent long periods there, as did Benjamin-Constant, enthralled by its famous white terraces, the trading in the souks, the traditional Kasbah, the architecture of the Great Mosque and the bustling street life of the medina.

Colonial Diplomacy in Morocco:
Delacroix vs. Benjamin-Constant

Morocco, the “farthest land of the setting sun,” unlike the other countries of the Maghreb, had preserved its political independence from the Ottoman influence. This self-governing kingdom resisted the struggles for power of the European nations, maintaining an ever more asymmetrical relationship with them. Ever since Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign in 1798, France had pursued its expansionist dreams in the Near East, seizing Algeria, its first African colony, in 1830.

Exactly forty years had passed between the trips to Morocco of Delacroix (1832) and Benjamin-Constant (1871-1873), both in the context of diplomatic missions: France wished to be sure of Morocco’s neutrality in regard to Algeria. This striking parallel between the two painters must be stressed.

Leaving Tangier, they found themselves in a land still dangerous for foreigners. Both were fascinated by its “barbaric” mores, its “theatre of cruelty” and its wild beauty, a savagery that was positively Medieval to their Eurocentric eyes: “Ah! Wretched people, what pain it gives to see your life, and what pleasure to paint it!” exclaimed Benjamin-Constant.

Le Kaïd, chef marocain

Eugène Delacroix, The Caid, Moroccan Chief, 1837, oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes. Photo RMN-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot

The Harem, Fantasies and Lies

The harem is a recurrent trope of Orientalist painting. In Arabic, haram, from which “harem” derives, refers to what is prohibited or sacred (as opposed to halal, denoting what is permitted or profane). It defined the space reserved for women in each household.

The object of endless curiosity and an incomparable source for fantasies, it was actually inaccessible to men, although Benjamin-Constant reported having crossed the threshold of some mysterious rooms in his Leaves from a Painter’s Note-book. For lack of suitable models in Paris, the artist executed in his studio numerous paintings, often monumental, of these exotic and sensual odalisques, acquiescent sex slaves subject to the pleasure of a decadent Oriental despotism – the Circassian whiteness of bewitching redheads, the servitude of black domestic slaves. The formula was successful!

The beautiful effects of the light piercing these secret interiors, shaded from the burning sun, dramatized the paintings. In France, as elsewhere, the salons were full of representations of languid nudes. This universal and reassuring acquiescence was not limited to Orientalist depictions, however, for when women began to assert their rights, their status stood as a threat to patriarchal society.

Female Moroccan Artists to Discover

The exhibition offered the Museum the opportunity to add works by the three contemporary Moroccan artists included in the show – Yasmina Bouziane, Lalla Essaydi and Majida Khattari – to its fledgling collection of contemporary art from the region. One of the fastest growing art markets in recent years, contemporary Middle Eastern art is also one of the most exciting art scenes in which women artists figure prominently. 

The photographs of Bouziane, Essaydi and Khattari create an intelligent visual and conceptual dialogue with the French nineteenth-century artist’s paintings. All three artists engage with the visual codes of Orientalism. The fact that they are women, Orientalism’s favourite subject, affords them a unique position to subvert stereotypes from the inside, using the very visual constructs used to create them.

Their position as outsiders and their biculturalism – the three live and work in the West – allow them to target both Western and Middle Eastern restrictive definitions of Arab womanhood. While Bouziane, Essaydi and Khattari all reappropriate Orientalist signs, they employ different strategies to transcend their inherent polarization.

Yasmina Bouziane

Bouziane’s self-portrait, Untitled no. 6, alias “The Signature,”  uses humour to convey the artist’s agency and the fiction of colonial photographic practices. 

The image, like the other works in the artist’s “Inhabited by Imaginings We Did Not Choose” series (1993-1994), blurs the representational boundaries of three distinct themes: the “Oriental” woman, the modern-cum-Western woman and the colonial photographer. 

Here, the odalisque sits up and takes charge of the camera, returning the colonial postcard, and therefore the gaze, to the sender.

Lalla Essaydi Les femmes du Maroc : La Sultane, 2008 MBAM. Achat, fonds de la Campagne du Musée 1988-1993

Lalla Essaydi

In The Sultana, with its reclining beauty and draperies, Essaydi evokes Orientalism in a bid to reappropriate her cultural imaginary from Western representations. 

Writing over the images in henna with indecipherable Kufic-like script, she displaces the voyeuristic gaze and asserts her right to self-representation, while the image’s dove (a symbol of freedom), references to European art (i.e. Courbet) and sheer beauty dissipate the East-West divide.

Majida Khattari Tornade Série « Luxe, désordre, volupté » 2012-2013 MBAM. Achat, fonds de l'honorable Charles Lapointe, C.P.

 Majida Khattari

Khattari also references Orientalist painting. Tornado re-enacts a Delacroix study for The Death of Sardanapalus (1827); however, rather than engage in postcolonial critique, the artist appears to relish re-creating the work’s visual richness.

The Franco- Moroccan artist reclaims Orientalism only to reclassify it as part of the tradition of the Other to which it lays claim.

Tornado possesses another political resonance, because for Khattari, the story of the defeated Sardanapalus bent on violence and revenge serves as a metaphor for the fallen dictators of the now moribund Arab Spring.


Under the general editorship of Nathalie Bondil, this publication, which is available in English and in French, comprises texts by twenty international experts.

Main publisher: Publishing Department, MMFA. Associate publishers (English edition): Les Éditions Hazan, Paris. Distribution (English edition): Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 399 pages and over 500 illustrations.

On sale at the Museum Boutique and Bookstore.

Acknowledgements and Curatorial Staff

A production of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, with the support of the Franco-American institution FRAME (French Regional American Museum Exchange).

The Montreal presentation was organized under the direction of Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator, with the layout designed by Maxime-Alexis Frappier (acdf* Architecture, Montreal).

The exhibition curators are Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and Axel Hémery, director of the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, with assistant curator Samuel Montiège, who holds a PhD in art history from the Université de Montréal.

This exhibition was named as an “Exposition d’intérêt national” by the French Minister of Culture and Communications, a label given each year to exhibitions that are notable for their scholarly achievement.


The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts extends its warmest thanks to the Embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco in Canada for its support. We would also like to thank our exhibition partners: MABI, Air Canada, Fasken Martineau, Bell, la Communauté Sépharade Unifiée du Québec, Buffalo David Bitton, la Banque populaire du Maroc, the Moroccan National Tourist Office, Tuyya, Ciot, La Presse and The Gazette.

The Museum would like to thank Quebec’s Ministère de la Culture et des Communications for its essential contribution. We acknowledge the importance of the financial support provided by the Government of Canada. Our gratitude also extends to the Conseil des arts de Montréal and the Canada Council for the Arts for their ongoing support.

The exhibition has also benefited from the invaluable collaboration of the Museum’s Volunteer Association and the Association of Volunteer Guides. We would also like to thank all our members and the many individuals, companies and foundations who support our mission, especially the Fondation de la Chenelière and the Arte Musica Foundation. The Museum’s International Exhibition Programme receives financial support from the Exhibition Fund of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Foundation and the Paul G. Desmarais Fund.

Our thanks to the Consulate General of the Kingdom of Morocco in Montreal and the Centre Culturel du Royaume du Maroc for their support of the concert featuring the Orchestre arabo-andalou de Fès, presented by the Arte Musica Foundation in the Bourgie Hall.