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The Impact of Islamic Arts on the West

The idea of a traditional Islamic Art and Architecture that began in the 7th century in Syria and grew to encompass the art and architecture of lands from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans, write Blair and Bloom (1994), is a creation of late 19th and 20th centuries Western thought. According to Blair and Bloom, there is no evidence that early Muslim artists ever thought of their work as Islamic.
Nor can it be said that there is a dominant style or influence that defines Islamic art. The Moorish Alhambra and the Indian Taj Mahal show that Islamic art and architecture has definite regional variations. However, scholars have devoted much effort to the identification of unifying principles in Islamic art -- geometric design and the arabesque, for example. It can be said, however, that the art and architecture of Islamic countries has long influenced on the West.
The influential Viennese publication of Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s general history of architecture in 1721 included Arab, Turkish and Persian architectural representations. The book lead to the design of several European structures in a Quasi-Oriental manner.
In 1750, Frederick, the Prince of Wales, commissioned the English architect William Chambers (1723-90) to design an “Alhambra” for the gardens at Kew. The resulting design had little in common with the original Alhambra in Spain. Chambers followed this design with an octagonal pavilion in the form of a mosque.
“It was based on a free improvisation on the domed Ottoman mosques flanked by minarets illustrated by Fischer von Erlach,” write Blair and Bloom. “A pagoda completed the trio of exotic buildings... at Kew.”
British artists and architects also found inspiration in the monuments of Muslim India. One of the first British artists to visit Agra, William Hodges (1746-97), drew and painted the beauties of the Taj Mahal. And English landscape painter Thomas Daniell (1749-1840) published Oriental Scenery in six folio-sized parts between 1795 and 1808. Blair and Bloom write that each part had 24 hand-colored acquaint plates that brought Indian scenes to a wide audience.
The future George IV commissioned architect John Nash (1752-1835) to remodel an unfinished structure at the Royal Pavilion. With inspiration from Daniell’s publications, Nash designed a pavilion with a large central ogival dome offset by four subsidiary domes. “The Oriental fantasy,” write Blair and Bloom, “extended as far as the kitchens, where iron palm-trees with copper fronds support the roof, but Nash used the latest technology, such as cast-iron ceiling frames and columns. In addition to giving the royal nod to the Oriental mode, the building set the style for glazed conservatories with bulbous domes.”
Some of the earliest and finest examples of Orientalism in Western painting were produced by French artist Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) who had been to Morocco in 1832. Blair and Bloom write “(Delacroix’s) opportunity to visit a harem, apparently the dream of almost every 19th century man, resulted in a picture such as his Femmes d’Alger, painted two years later in 1834.”
After touring Syria, Palestine and Europe, American landscape painter Fredric Church (1826-1900) did a series of Mediterranean compositions that included scenes from Jerusalem and Petra. Church also returned from his trip with an enthusiasm for Islamic architecture.
A number of 19 th century international exhibitions further introduced the West to Islamic arts. The Great Exhibition of 1851 at London’s Crystal Palace included Persian exhibits of carpets and carpet design that held influence over William Morris (1834-96), the poet, designer and theorist of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris did not imitate the Persian designs but found inspiration in their geometric patterns. Morris’ own carpet designs -- with their rich colors, coherent patterns and planar surfaces -- show the impact Persian Vase carpets had on the English artist, write Blair and Bloom.
According to Blair and Bloom, the French painter Henri Matisee (1869-1954) may be the greatest Western artist to integrate his own work with the influence of Islamic art. Matisse not only attended a number of exhibitions of Islamic art, but he also traveled to southern Spain, Morocco and Algeria. Blair and Bloom write that while Matisse’s predecessors had added Oriental motifs to give their works an exotic flavor, Matisse actually incorporated the lessons he learned from viewing Islamic art into his paintings. In The Painter’s Family, for example, Matisse’s tripartite composition and the flattened perspective are devices common to Persian manuscript paintings, as are the figures that seem to float in space.
It should be noted that while the arts in 19 th and 20 th centuries European and American countries were feeling the influence of Islamic arts and architecture, the reverse was occurring as well. Islamic arts and architecture began to experience the influence of Western artistry -- and technology.

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