What is colonial art ?

Harems, fighting scenes and typical landscapes in orientalist paintings portrayed an exotic terra incognita. La Grande Odalisque by Ingres, painted in 1814 or La mort de Sardanapale, completed by Delacroix in 1827 depicted a fantasized East. While orientalism is mostly a 19th century movement, it sometimes includes some 20th century works. And yet, by examining the context of their creation, one should set these later works apart as falling under to colonial art.

Orientalism is a Western art movement which emerged at the very end of the 18th century with Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt. The Greek war against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s and the early years of the French colonization in Algeria from 1830 onwards also revived artists’ interest in the East. Victor Hugo in his poetry book Les Orientales in 1829, Alexandre Decamps depicting Turkish streets and Eugène Fromentin painting Algerian horsemen portrayed a geographically wide East (from Spain to the Middle-East), in turns mysterious and sensual (Les Orientales), cruel (Le Supplice des crochets by Decamps), but also majestic and peaceful (La chasse au héron by Fromentin). 

The renewed French colonial expansion at the end of the 19th century led to changing the Western approach to these « oriental » countries among which some were becoming colonies. Is it still relevant to talk of « orientalism » to qualify the art production taking inspiration from colonized territories? Did colonization influence artists’ practices? As a matter of fact, significant changes took place, starting from the end of the 19th century until decolonization which turned « orientalism » into « colonial art ». These transformations and what they entailed for artists and their productions, can be observed through the example of the French painters who went to Morocco during the Protectorate.


  • Lespes M., 2017, De l’orientalisme à l’art colonial  : les peintres français au Maroc pendant le Protectorat (1912-1956), thèse d’histoire de l’art, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès. 


The Paris craze for colonial art

From the end of the 19th century, art associations were formed in Paris to foster the production of works dedicated to French colonies. For doing so, they organized fairs and exhibitions devoted to those artists who had already travelled around French colonies and granted them prizes enabling them to (re) discover them. Funded by colonial governments such as the Moroccan government, by tourist companies like the Compagnie de navigation mixte (Shipping Company, France), and by senior colonial officials like Henry Bérenger, these prizes linked art associations to metropolitan colonial circles. 

It is a fact that these officials were supporting art societies in order to publicize and popularize the colonial empire. According to them, a painting was a nicer and more effective illustration of what Madagascar or Indochina looked like, better than any advertising booklet or any political speech. The context had therefore significantly changed for the colonial artist.

Compared to what his orientalist elder had experienced, it was rather easy for any painter to have his colonial journey funded and, back to France, have exhibitions organized in places dedicated to colonial art. Whereas back in the 19th century, travelling to « the East » was in most cases a unique and undreamt of opportunity in a career, in the 20th century travelling to the colonies got institutionalized and, consequently, rather commonplace.

Establishing art associations in the colonies

Art facilities promoting colonial art were also set up in French colonies. The most famous example was the villa Abd-el-Tif in Alger, previously a 18th century palace, transformed in 1907 into an artist-in-residence institution by the Algerian government. In Morocco, the government founded art workshops in RabatMeknesFezSafi and Marrakesh which accommodated Western painters and enabled them to work for free during three months at most.

This measure shows that the Protectorate government was fostering the circulation of artists in the country against their settling there because colonial art was seen as a propaganda tool aimed at metropolitans, not at locals. Therefore, very little official support was granted to those institutions set up to develop artistic life in Morocco: art schools and Western art museums in Casablanca and in Rabat, were mostly private initiatives, hence much less developed than in Algeria.

The arts scene in Morocco was mostly supported by private actors (galleries, art associations, exhibitions, fairs). The aim of the first association to be set up was to create proper « Moroccan » art and for that, was named « Kasbah ». However, the prime goal was dropped in the 1930s and it became instead a society of professional artists fostering the development of quality colonial art.

Besides, metropolitan and Moroccan art works started gaining some visibility after the Second World War, especially in galleries. Art fairs were also reflecting this trend as they increasingly accepted Moroccan artists and exhibited more and more works in which formal aspects took precedence over the search for local iconography.

Changing conditions of residence under the Protectorate

In the 19th century, Western painters could discover Tangier, the only Moroccan town they could reach, unless they were able to join a diplomatic embassy travelling in the interior. In that case, they were escorted by armed horsemen and then chaperoned by guides or guards inside the cities. After the treaty of Fes signed in 1912 establishing the Protectorate, things changed.

The beginning of tourism in Morocco, technical improvements in transport and above all the French army’s « peace operations » enabled painters to move more easily and to go to places previously out of reach. Thus, they started exploring the interior and the Atlas; the boldest, like Jacques Majorelle, would sometimes reach some remote mountain villages ahead of the army.

Nevertheless, most artists mainly stayed in Fès, Meknès, and Marrakech. Most of the painters staying permanently in Morocco lived in Rabat and Casablanca which were the entry and exit points for metropolitan artists. Arrivals in the country were also greatly facilitated: painters only needed a passport and a boat ticket, often funded by the colonial government or by a Parisian association.

Once there, they were assured to be guided by authorities, welcomed by colleagues or colleagues’ families, accommodated in hotels meeting the European hygiene norms, to be able to exhibit and sell their works. That is why artists travelled to Morocco in great numbers: compared to the approximate 200 Western artists visiting the country from 1832 to 1911, at least 500 French painters (added to painters from other nationalities, sculptors, architects, etc.) came to the Protectorate over 44 years.

Colonial painting, not so fanciful nor as lavish as orientalism

The increasing number of visits affected the way Moroccan women were portrayed. Many Moroccan women painted in the 19th century by Western painters were Jewish as they did not have to cover themselves in front of foreigners, as opposed to Muslim women. The Jewish community in Morocco was also close to Europeans: the latter, therefore, had more opportunities to meet women and wives.

As for black women in orientalist painting, they were mostly presented as slaves and as foils to enhance their white mistress just like in Bain maure by Jean-Léon Gérôme. In this kind of painting, « oriental women » painted back in France, were often Caucasian models who were made to pose dressed in a « Moroccan » fashion. Settings were opulent: the women’s clothes, jewels and the objects which surrounded them suggested a wealthy background, born from the painters’ imagination.

On the contrary, in the 20th century in Morocco, artists painted right on the spot, as it was now easy for them to both have workshops and local commercial outlets. As a result of colonization, relationships between the Muslim and French communities were getting closer: painters could more easily call on Muslim models. So, most women in colonial paintings are either Arabs or Berbers, no longer Jewish. Black women are slightly more numerous in paintings and their activities more diverse. Last of all, simple and plain settings no longer reflect the upper class but mirror ordinary women’s daily lives as can be seen in Edy Legrand’s painting Jeunes marocaines dans un patio .

Nevertheless, although colonial painting as a whole depicted Moroccan society more realistically than orientalist art, in no way should it be considered as true to reality. Painters exclusively showed those particular aspects of Moroccan daily life they were interested in, without any representation of the colonial administration and the disruption it brought about. Scène de marché à Fès by Yvonne Mariotte and Paysage de Chefchaouen by Henri Pontoy are two good illustrations. Clashes, tensions between communities, French structures, nationalist demands, the westernization of some of the Moroccans were avoided by artists.

Therefore, keeping using the word « orientalism » to qualify art practices in the 20th century understates the impact of colonization in the field of art. When the French colonial empire resumed its expansion, part of « the East/Orient », which used to be a geographically fuzzy territory and the ideal material for artists’ imagination, turned into colonies, specifically mapped territories, controlled by the army and depicted more precisely by French painters.

Crédits images en CC : Flaticon Freepik, Patrick Mignard pour Mondes Sociaux


Marlène Lespes

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, FRAMESPA (marlene.lespes@neuf.fr)

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