What is more European, after all, than to be corrupted by the Orient?
-- RICHARD HOWARD
What is the rationale behind the recent spate of revisionist or expansionist exhibitions of nineteenth-century art--The Age of Revolution, The Second Empire, The Realist Tradition, Northern Light, Women Artists, various shows of academic art, etc.? Is it simply to rediscover overlooked or forgotten works of art? Is it to reevaluate the material, to create a new and less value-laden canon? These are the kinds of questions that were raised-- more or less unintentionally, one suspects--by the 1982 exhibition and catalogue Orientalism: The Near East in French Painting, 1800-1880.1
Above all, the Orientalist exhibition makes us wonder whether there are other questions besides the "normal" art-historical ones that ought to be asked of this material. The organizer of the show, Donald Rosenthal, suggests that there are indeed important issues at stake here, but he deliberately stops short of confronting them. "The unifying characteristic of nineteenth-century Orientalism was its attempt at documentary realism," he declares in the introduction to the catalogue, and then goes on to maintain, quite correctly, that "the flowering of Orientalist painting . . . was closely associated with the apogee of European colonialist expan-