Orientalism: A Look Back and a Look Ahead

Millie Smith

Gérôme, Jean-Léon. The Snake Charmer, 1880. Oil on canvas. 32 3/8 x 47 5/8 in. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Gérôme, Jean-Léon. The Snake Charmer, 1880. Oil on canvas. 32 3/8 x 47 5/8 in. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

For my “Mind-Body Medicine” artifact, I have selected The Snake Charmer, a painting completed in 1880 by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. This piece immediately came to mind while I was reading chapter six, “Eastward Journeys,” of Anne Harrington’s The Cure Within, as I was struck by the section’s focus on orientalism and the Western tendency to exoticize and borrow specific images and customs that originated in the East. I first learned about this piece in my Art History class last year, and have carried its messages (intended or otherwise) with me ever since; it was mere coincidence that when I went to look up the image, I realized that it was featured on the front cover of Edward Said’s Orientalism, a book that is referenced multiple times in The Cure Within that defines the implications of Western colonial and cultural appropriation of the East.

Not only does this artifact provide a look into late 19th century art, but it also allows a glimpse into the events of the 1880s and how those shaped Western conceptualization of all things “Eastern”. The Snake Charmer represents a very specific time in European history, when France held colonies in North Africa and there existed a hyper-popular fascination with those exotic destinations. Gérôme himself had taken many trips to Egypt and had been deemed an authority by French audiences to his work; in reality, his art- although visually immaculate- was romanticized and emphasized to the point that it did not accurately portray Eastern life whatsoever. The great efforts that Gérôme went to in order to depict the displayed group as a society entirely distinct from that of France were more successful in establishing that the painting’s subjects were unquestionably “the other”. The focal point of the naked young boy facing a crowd of older men distinguished this painting on a whole other level of eroticism than the normal nudes that Académie audiences were used to. By isolating, dramatizing, and contributing to stereotypes held of people, traditions, and places of the East, this piece “[advanced] European colonialist and imperialist agendas.”1

This chapter focused less on the historic stories of mind-body medicine specific to the time period in which The Snake Charmer was produced, but it raises some important questions about our past and present views of Eastern traditions and images. The chapter begins nearly one hundred years after the painting was created in the late 19th century, and although there is technically no longer Western colonization of Eastern Asian states, one could argue that there is a similar borrowing system on the part of Western cultures towards Eastern practices. Orientalism may not have the same exploitative face as it did in Gérôme’s time, but is the Western obsession-turned-medicalization of ancient Eastern practices a modern take on it? Or have we perhaps crossed the threshold of appropriation and genuinely turned to Eastern medicine as a legitimate form of care that we can learn from?

1Harrington, Anne. The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. New York: Norton, 2009.

2The Clark Art Institute. “Jean-Léon Gérôme.” Accessed February 12, 2015. http://www.clarkart.edu/Collection/559.



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