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Constantin Guys and the Painters of Global Modernity

Updated: Jul 23

Excerpt from Mary Roberts, “Constantin Guys and the Painters of Global Modernity,” Fashioning the Modern Middle East: Gender, Body and Nation, eds Reina Lewis and Yasmine Nachabe Taan, Dress Cultures Series, Bloomsbury, May 2021, 91-112.

Walter Charles Horsley, Great Britain in Egypt, 1886, 1887, Oil on Canvas, 122.5 x 154.9 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney


Until recently, art historians have considered Paris the capital of nineteenth-century modernity, with the most radical avant-garde developments in picture-making emerging in the context of this modern city that was systematically transformed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s vast public works program.

In 1863, Charles Baudelaire famously essayed these profound changes to life and art, championing the work of Constantin Guys as the exemplary painter of Parisian modern life. Contemporary fashion and the modern body were brought to centre stage in Baudelaire’s essay, “The painter of modern life” (1863), and made radically prominent in the realm of high art. For Baudelaire, Guys’ sketches of modern bodies in Paris are significant because they visualize the contingencies of modernity. In the same period, cities of the Near East, by contrast, so the art historical story goes, were rendered in an indeterminate time of the “orient,” sealed out of modernity in the hands of European artists, even on the canvases of aesthetic radicals such as Eugène Delacroix. The terms of such art historical verities, its eurocentrism, are now being called into question as art historians address the intersecting visual cultures of global modernity. This essay is concerned with a range of images by Ottoman patrons and European artists that trouble such accounts of nineteenth-century modernism and orientalism. They exemplify a little-studied impulse in European art that I am calling the orientalism of modern life.


What is the orientalism of modern life? We find it in the midst of French modernism, in Baudelaire’s iconic essay that includes Guys’ sketches of Istanbul during the Crimean War. Guys’ orientalism was an aesthetics of alliance, attuned to the sartorial modernity of the city’s Ottoman elites and the contingencies of cross-cultural encounter between Ottoman, British, and French allies in Istanbul at this pivotal moment in modern military history. Comparing these sketches to prints derived from them for the Illustrated London News provides rare insight as to procedures of visual mediation through print journalism: from sketch to print, Ottoman culture is rendered more exotic, less engaged in defining its modernity. Like Guys, two decades later Walter Charles Horsley rendered the Ottoman imperial capital for the British illustrated press. Horsley’s orientalism inscribed the contingencies of seeing and looking for passengers within Istanbul’s novel urban infrastructure: the new underground railway, the second in the world. Horsley crossed the divide between popular culture and high art when he brought his orientalism of modern life to the Royal Academy in London. The imperial messaging of his painting is evident through its sartorial iconography and their global circulation through colonial networks of collecting. These international and colonial networks are the context for the acquisition of Horsley’s painting Great Britain in Egypt, 1886, that was purchased for the fledgling Art Gallery of New South Wales after its exhibition at the Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne in 1888-89. So, too, such orientalist impulses were selectively embraced and contested by local elites in the Middle East. Throughout this essay, I analyse this orientalism of modern life contrapuntally, within a more expansive cultural geography that encompasses contemporaneous art and patronage of Ottoman elites. Such a conjunction reveals that elite Ottoman women’s engagement with visual culture shares some of the experimental approach to aesthetics that Baudelaire recognized in the work of Constantin Guys.


Constantin Guys, Femmes Turque en Promenade, undated, 27 x 19.5 cm. Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris (D.1292). © Musée Carnavalet/Roger-Viollet


SEE THE BOOK HERE. Reina Lewis and Yasmine Nachabe Taan, eds, Fashioning the Modern Middle East: Gender, Body, and Nation, Dress Cultures Series, Bloomsbury, May 2021

MARY ROBERTS is the John Schaeffer Professor of Art History. She specializes in nineteenth-century British and Ottoman art with particular expertise in Orientalism, the history of artistic exchanges between the Ottoman Empire and Europe and the culture of travel. Her books include: Istanbul Exchanges. Ottomans, Orientalists and Nineteenth-century visual culture (University of California Press, 2015), Intimate Outsiders. The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature (Duke, 2007) and four co-edited books: The Poetics and Politics of Place. Ottoman Istanbul and British Orientalism (Pera Museum and University of Washington Press, 2011) Edges of Empire. Orientalism and Visual Culture (Blackwells, 2005), Orientalism’s Interlocutors, (Duke, 2002) and Refracting Vision. Essays on the Writings of Michael Fried (Power Publications, 2000/2012).

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