19th Century Art Around the World


By Victoria Chick, contemporary figurative artist and early 19th & 20th century print collector

The 19th Century was a worldwide period of change. It was the first century in which widespread interaction occurred between cultures. Some of the interaction came about as a result of wars. Colonization and empire building were also reasons. People began to travel for enjoyment via railroad and sailing ships. Overseas vacations and tours were made possible because the powerful British Navy eradicated piracy. Railroads were developed in the 1800’s, the most famous being the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul. Some of the prime effects of cultural interaction were manifested in art, decoration, and architecture as travel opened and ideas were exchanged, so it is worth taking a closer look at the countries involved and the art that resulted.

Although European nations had been exploring and claiming foreign land long before the 19th century, it was in that century that Britain and France controlled a huge share of the world’s land mass. The British developed colonies in India, Ceylon, Gibraltar, Aden, East Africa, Egypt, and part of the southern tip of Africa. They also controlled the Malay Peninsula and the island city of Hong Kong.  In the early part of the century, Britain returned to France many of the French colonial possessions it had won by defeating France in the Napoleonic Wars. During the second French Empire under Napoleon III, the French embarked on an aggressive campaign to control Turkey, and the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. By the end of the 19th century, the French controlled most of North, Central and West Africa.  In the Far East, they colonized the areas of Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia and called it French Indo-China. The French were interested in spreading their culture. Anyone in their colonies could be granted French citizenship if they became fluent in the French language.

Additionally, the French had trade concessions in China and controlled many of the Polynesian Islands. Napoleon III’s armies invaded Mexico and held it under control for 15 years but it was never a true colony. French-Japanese relations had been sporadic following a 200 year period of Japanese isolation. But in 1858 diplomatic and trade relations were instituted.

The Dutch had a long history of spice trade going back to the 17th century and by the 19th century their sphere of influence extended from South Africa to Indonesia and some of the islands off the coast of South America. Spain and Portugal, exploring the world as early the 15th century, still had pockets of overseas influence but had stopped being major players in colonization by the 19th century.  It is important to understand the extent of all the national contacts because of the way they influenced the content of 19th century art in subject matter and composition. It is also important to remember the influences went both ways.

One effect in Western art was termed an “Orientalizing” influence. Orient means “East” and Oriental was considered any place east of Greece. Turkey was as Oriental to Western European minds as Japan. In the early part of the 19th century, the Orientalizing influence was limited to subject matter in paintings. Locations in Turkey and North Africa (including Egypt) exotic for clear light, strange architecture, animals, and plants as well as people with different features and clothing were picturesque attractions for Western European artists. By the later 19th century, some architects tried to incorporate the type of arches, domes, and tile work they saw in the Middle East and Africa into buildings in England and America. Because it was very ornate, imaginative, and expensive, this adopted style of architecture was built for retreat destinations or country estates of the very wealthy. Interiors generally reflected the opulence of the exterior.

One subject of Orientalizing was the harem, an Eastern tradition of life which was fancifully depicted in many paintings. The artists had to make things up based on what they heard since the harems were strictly private. Slave markets of the mid-east were another subject similar in content.   Although slavery had been outlawed in all British lands, the staid Victorian English could openly admire these soft pornographic subjects because of the cultural distance involved. Caravans of camels, battle scenes, Arabian horses, and landmarks such as the pyramids and famous bazaars were also frequent subjects.

As mentioned above, the British Navy made the seas safer for travel. Some sea captains even had their families travel with them. American artist Margaret Jordan Patterson grew up traveling the globe with her parents in her father’s clipper ship. Since many Polynesian Islands had been claimed by France, French artists were attracted there especially after Paul Gauguin began to exhibit his Tahitian paintings in Paris.  Steamships were developed by the last part of the 19th century and became the choice of travelers. Their larger size accommodated more tourists in greater comfort and they could navigate passages like the Suez Canal which opened in 1869.

By the 19th century, the art capitol of Europe had shifted from Rome to Paris. This city became the destination of European and American artists who wanted to study the latest trends in art. This is important to keep in mind because the French imported art from their many colonial possessions and trade partners and brought it to Paris.  It was much admired by the artists gathered there. Japanese color woodblock prints were especially collected by many artists. There was enough interest among the French in all things Japanese that a French publisher devoted a magazine to the subject.

The Impressionist artists in Paris were the first to recognize a kindred spirit in Japanese artists who, like the Impressionists, tried to capture the moment. Claude Monet did many paintings of the same subject in varying light situations and his Japanese printmaker counterparts, Hokusai and Hiroshige, did numerous aspects of one location. This way of working was adopted by many Impressionists and continued with some of the Post-Impressionist artists. Post- Impressionist Paul Cezanne’s many versions of Mont Sainte Victoire are well-known examples. Monet’s paintings of the façade of Rouen Cathedral done at different times of day as the light changed its appearance and his haystack series going from Fall to Winter are other good examples.

Japanese artists used a type of perspective that was unlike the linear perspective or atmospheric perspective handed down through European art since the Renaissance. The Japanese artists often organized their space as if looking down on the subject so that things farther away were higher in the picture plane. This perspective was adopted by Degas and others.  The background space in Japanese prints was often a flat color with the subjects defined by lines thus making shapes very important to design. Lines and large areas of color were used to define shapes. These elements were incorporated into the revolution going on in European art at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century.  In addition to the Post – Impressionist Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Degas especially were influenced by seeing Japanese prints. Additionally, Gauguin admired Polynesian bark-cloth and primitive prints from New Guinea. He experimented doing woodcut prints. His paintings and prints reflected primitive religious myths and island life he experienced living in Tahiti. His figures have a rounded simplicity that is reminiscent of sculpture.

Sculpture and masks imported from French colonies in Africa were curiosities whose geometric and decorative characteristics were admired by 19th century artists appreciative of new modes of expression and seeing. Pablo Picasso, in the first decade of the 20th century,  incorporated these characteristics into his work as it became more abstract. His famous “Demoiselles d’ Avignon” created a furor at the time and was considered “savage” probably because the title associated it with French prostitutes, which was a bit close to home. It did not have the geographical or historical distance of the harem and slave market scenes. The French artist who became most absorbed with Japanese culture was Claude Monet. He not only used elements of Japanese woodblock print design but also translated Japanese print imagery into his painting.  Monet developed a Japanese style garden at his country home in Giverney. Most of his mid and late career paintings were based on his garden including his famous water lily series and the painting of his Japanese Bridge.  He corresponded with the artist Hiroshige and purchased Japanese costumes and ceramics.

American artists James McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt, who resided most of their working lives in France, borrowed from Japanese art, the habit of using strong shapes to organize their canvases, and Cassatt frequently looked down on her subjects in the Japanese manner.

European and American architecture borrowed many Mid – Eastern elements and some decorative features that, while not always authentic, were designed to please Western notions of the exotic. Whistler, who spent time in England as well as France, was commissioned to decorate a dining room for British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland.  Called the “Peacock Room”, its decoration was oil paint and gold leaf peacocks on leather wall panels. It is an example of the 19th century rage for opulence triggered by a new awareness of foreign places and is considered one of Whistler’s masterpieces. Leyland thought it overshadowed the collection or Oriental ceramics he kept in the room and their friendship was broken. After Leyland’s death, his widow sold the entire room to American Charles Freer and it is now in the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. The Royal Pavilion at Brighton designed by John Nash for the Prince of Wales, who became King George IV, was an adaptation of the “onion” dome typical of churches and mosques from Turkey to India. The interior decoration was a mixture of Indian, Islamic, and Chinese elements.

American industry rose in the 19th century and, along with it, newly rich tycoons wanted homes to reflect their position.  Most had city residences in New York, but developed country estates in the Hudson River Valley.  Some of these mansions were designed by architects who traveled abroad with a wealthy family, gathering ideas to incorporate into the new home. An example is the mansion called Olana commissioned by the American artist, Frederic Church who had been inspired by the architecture he saw on his travels to the Middle East. Olana has Moroccan type tile on the roof. But, Olana has steeply pitched roofs as opposed to the flat roofs of the Middle East in order to shed the snow and heavy rain of New York State. Its door and window openings are in the Moorish style.

Finally, in the 19th century many European artists and American artists gravitated to the territories of the American West, especially to Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico. They heard about Indians, fabulous scenery, and clear light while exchanging information as students at Academie Julian in Paris.  Many found the information irresistible and went on prolonged painting excursions to Taos. Some artists decided it was too good to leave.

The number of artists, architects, and craftsmen affected by changes that took place in the 19th century are myriad. The topic needs a book rather than an article to cover it all. However, I hope this brief overview gives an idea of how this time period opened the world to artists then and, when you see the work of artists today, you may see that the work produced in the 19th century continues to influence contemporary artists.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at www.ArtistVictoriaChick.com

Cow Trail Art Studio - Silver City, NM


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About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio

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