Edwin Long and Edward Poynter – Orientalism, Neoclassicism and Biblical Art

The Babylonian Marriage Market, Edwin Long, 1879

In one of Stephen’s blog posts on the book of Esther, he chose a painting by Edwin Long entitled ‘Queen Esther’ which was painted in 1878 and it resides in the National Gallery of Victoria. Edwin Long also painted a picture of Vashti, entitled ‘Vashti’ in 1879. He also famously painted a work entitled ‘Babylonian Marriage Market’ in 1875 (above). Edwin Long was born on the 12th July 1829 in England and died on the 15th May 1891 in Hampstead in London. The art periods in which he painted were Academic art, Neoclassicism and Orientalism.

Edward Poynter, on the other hand, was born on the 20th March 1836 in Paris, France. He died on the 26th July 1919 in London. Edward John Poynter, 1st Baronet, was a painter, designer and draughtsman and also famously painted ‘The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to king Solomon’ in 1890 and this painting resides in the Art Gallery of NSW. He also painted in the Orientalist style and attended the Westminister School, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Heatherley School of Fine Art.

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, Edward Poynter, 1890, Art Gallery of New South Wales

It is to be noted that both artists were from Europe, namely England, and were English even though Poynter was born in Paris. They were swept up in the style of neoclassicism and orientalism. Neoclassicism is a painting style whereas orientalism has its roots in colonial empire building. In a previous blog post I have mentioned the male gaze which is a feminist concept that explains the almost pornographic images that can be found amongst traditional paintings which reflect the male attitude towards women (see also Stephen’s post about this here). Female artists tend to paint with an alternative lense. Orientalism focuses its gaze on the kingdoms of the east with an eye to dominance and derision of its peoples. During these artists’ lives, the Ottoman empire was failing and falling into ruin whereas “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Orientalism could be seen as an extension of the male gaze where the west looks upon the east with both scorn and perhaps a certain amount of covetousness regarding its social structures and customs involving women and men which were quite different in comparison with the stifling social expectations and mores of Europe.

In Long’s works, women are the subject but in the case of Esther and Vashti they are characters in a biblical story. The women are painted as beautiful and feminine with soft brush strokes emphasising their qualities. The light in the paintings is gentle. As is the case in eastern tradition, Vashti is part of a harem even though she is the queen and as such has little freedom. Her refusal of the king’s request to be seen and admired sees her replaced with Esther who also becomes part of the harem. Esther was chosen from all the eligible young women in the land to be the king’s new queen. The social structure of the day could be quite appealing to men who observe that the east does not necessarily see marriage as just between one man and one woman as Christians do. The painting of the Babylonian marriage market portrays women as almost having the status of slaves and yet in the painting they seem compliant or at least resigned to their fate. Neoclassicism focused on the appreciation and fascination with antiquity and certainly in Longs work he seems rather taken with the subservient nature of women in eastern society.

In Poynter’s famous painting of the Queen of Sheba we see a different painting style. It is grand in size (234.5 x 350.5 cm) and the frame is opulent with its gold gilt. The frame is a reflection of the artist’s intention to show in the painting all the splendour of Solomon’s court. The colours chosen are rich in their hue and the brush strokes are fine so as not to detract from the subject matter. Poynter cleverly brings to life the verse in 1 Kings 10:4-5 “…all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings…[ensured] there was no more spirit in her.” He paints the queen in an erotic costume and her skin tone is brown, a controversial move at the time. It took Poynter six years to complete. He was very proud of the work. Criticism of the work was that it was too dramatic, reverting back to Poynter’s earlier works. However, I feel that the artists captures the charisma of Solomon in that he virtually woos the queen with his wealth and style. Orientalism in this case, doesn’t so much deride the subject but seems to be in awe of it.

If you ever get the chance to see the painting in the Art Gallery of NSW you should see it. It is well worth it and it is an excellent example of orientalism at its best.