The Snake Charmer & Orientalism

In his seminal work Orientalism, Said contends that Orientalism is an elaborately construed process through which Europeans produce knowledge that changes our understanding of Eastern people, places, and beliefs. Orientalist works are not representative of the Orient’s geographic or material reality, he explains, nor is impartiality their immediate concern. Instead, Orientalism is a method of “filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness,” of projecting a contrasting texture, experience, and flavor that allows the West to define itself as characteristically different from the East. In this process, Said claims that those within the enterprise of Orientalism have established an artificial dichotomy between the East and West that is grounded in a unidirectional declaration of power, one that assumes the unchecked supremacy of a Eurocentric perspective and is used to justify Western exploration, navigation, and exploitation. In no place are these themes more pervasively clear than in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer. Produced with oil on canvas in 1879, this work represents a growing French fascination with the Eastern world at a time when the government of Napoleon III “…was taking an active interest…in the efforts of the Ottoman government to reform and modernize itself.” It is within this historical context where I argue that The Snake Charmer balances artistic realism and intentional ambiguity to mislead viewers towards preconceived and often erroneous notions about the Eastern world. Furthermore, its utilization of degrading architecture and overt sexualization paints the Orient as both materially and morally eroded. Ultimately, the consolidation of these pictorial devices blurs the line between reality and imagination, inserting Western viewers into a space that (while in actuality is nonexistent) feels perfectly plausible. 

Firstly, it must be noted that the magical and exotic representations of the Islamic world that so deeply characterize The Snake Charmer are by no means unique to the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme or his privileged station as professor at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts of France. Indeed, a vast proportion of Orientalist works across a range of disciplines were produced by a self-selective and politically motivated authorship whose elite status allowed for the large scale material investment associated with Orientalist inquiry at the time. The works of Gustave Flaubert, Gérard de Nerval, and François-René de Chateaubriand, for instance, or the paintings of Eugène Delacroix, reveal the longstanding propensity of those in the highest echelons of French academia to mischaracterize the Oriental world as intrinsically opposed to Western interests. Gérôme’s painting merely advances these precedents at a time when, according to French historian Edouard Driault in his La Question d’Orient (1898), it was “…necessary to change Muslim habits, to destroy the age-old fanaticism which was an obstacle to the fusion of races and to create a modern secular state.” Indeed, sentiments of this kind that were so prevalent within French artistic and academic circles suggest the preeminent (and ultimately hegemonic) role of such works in shaping popular opinion at the time. 

What makes Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer so consistent with its Orientalist precedents is the extent to which it attempts to disguise itself as a realistic representation of the East. The work is exquisitely finished, for instance, with every stroke of paint laid on the canvas with such masterful precision that the painting seems almost photographic upon initial inspection. Moreover, the arabic writing in the background is clearly legible and translatable, and both the blue tile wall and the stone floor of the mosque are inspired by actual places: Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace and Cairo’s Mosque of Amr, respectively. Indeed, what this appropriation does is give the viewer an unwavering sense that Gérôme’s depiction is as authentic and objective as if one had travelled to the mosque themselves, for who could question the compositional accuracy of an image constructed with such painstaking attention to detail? Who could contend the validity of a scene that, while as a collective whole never existed, is nonetheless drawn from the components of reality? 

What is most dangerous about The Snake Charmer, however, is not the way in which it poses as historical reality, smuggling (and thus giving legitimacy to) European fantasies of life in the Islamic world under cover of familiar places and things. What is most dangerous is Gérôme’s intentional decision to leave out of view just as much information as he includes. The men and women sitting against the vibrant wall in the background, for one, are draped in garments from a combination of different yet indiscernible cultures. Furthermore, many of the locals’ faces, arguably the source of their identities, are partially or totally covered. Even the child in the foreground is turned away from the observer to conceal important characteristics like sex or age. We are not, as we so often are in Impressionist works of this period, “…invited to identify with the audience…[who are] as resolutely alienated from us as is the act they watch with such childish, trancelike concentration.” Instead, we are deprived access to crucial information about the scene’s context and characters, urging us to complete the painted scene with our own presumptions and generalizations. In precisely this way, a diverse group of characters in the image becomes relegated to a homogenous group of “Orientals” that, depending on one’s political motivations, is either smiling invitingly at the Western observer or seething with hatred behind facial coverings. 

Furthermore, the painting uses an array of subtle pictorial elements to portray the East as both materially and morally eroded. The tiled wall of the mosque in the backdrop, for instance, is weathered and chipped as its bare wooden foundations are slightly exposed. In the top right corner of that same wall is displayed a worn and rusting shield, ancient weaponry in comparison to the hunting rifles, pistols, and shotguns widely available in Europe at the time. Even further, the stones comprising the floor in the foreground are cracked and some pieces are even missing. These visual elements come together to display the Orient as a region quite literally standing on foundations of instability, antiquity, and danger, a set of imagery that slowly erodes one’s confidence in Eastern achievements of art, architecture, and society. It implies, in a sort of sneaky and subliminal fashion, that the Orient is as brittle as it is beautiful, always moments away from destruction. Furthermore, it predisposes the audience to at once conclude that, if the most holy spaces in Eastern society are so neglected that they become materially weak, Eastern people must be morally weak as well. It is no surprise then, that in The Snake Charmer’s sexualization of a child’s exposed body grasping an arguably phallic snake, voyeurism is titillated, “…and yet the blame for this is shifted on to the slumped audience in the painting” who must be exploiting the situation for their personal entertainment. While Gérôme is the one whose very brushstrokes sexualize the child, the locals (and the Islamic mosque that allows such impudence to occur within its domain) are the ones morally questioned. 

Ultimately, The Snake Charmer’s moral upper-handedness, as far as the Eastern world is concerned, is what so strongly unifies Orientalist works across space and time, creating a feeling that Europe has an unspoken obligation to reform the barbaric Orient into its own image. Through an array of methodically implemented pictorial devices (fine detail, appropriated and degrading architecture, ambiguous characters and contexts, antiquated weaponry, phallic imagery, etc.), Gérôme follows his predecessors in misleading viewers towards preconceived and erroneous notions about the Eastern world. According to The Snake Charmer, the Orient is a space brimming with degrading architecture, overt sexualization, and moral erosion only salvageable upon Western intervention. It is precisely this representation of the East, paired with the work’s sweeping and intergenerational influence on European thought, that makes this painting ultimately hegemonic. 

THE SNAKE CHARMER, c. 1880

JEAN-LÉON GÉRÔME, FRENCH, 1824–1904

Oil on canvas, 32 3/8 x 47 5/8 in. (82.2 x 121 cm) 

Frame: 41 × 56 × 4 1/4 in. (104.1 × 142.2 × 10.8 cm)

References:

Gérôme, Jean Léon. The Snake Charmer. 1880.

“Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824 – 1904) (Getty Museum).” The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles 

Finkel, Jori. “Jean-Léon Gérôme’s ‘The Snake Charmer’: A Twisted History.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 13 June 2010.

Hoffman, Philip T. “Prices, the military revolution, and Western Europe’s comparative advantage in violence.” The Economic History Review 64 (2011): 39-59.

Nochlin, Linda. “The imaginary orient.” Art in America 71, no. 5 (1983): 118-131.

Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. Vintage.

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