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The Cover
July 27, 2011

The Incense Burner

JAMA. 2011;306(4):348. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.997

Orientalism refers to an interpretation, or reimagination, of Eastern culture by Western writers, designers, and visual artists. The prototypical orientalist painting is Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Eugène Delacroix, a picture of a North African harem in a carpeted room, lounging with a hookah. It hangs in the Louvre, where it has warmed the libidos of European artists for more than 100 years. Pablo Picasso was so taken with Women of Algiers that he painted 15 variations of it in 1954. The original, painted by Delacroix in 1834, had all the orientalist elements: dreamy, nubile young women draped in soft finery, reclining languidly in a smoky, private room, an opium pipe within easy reach. During the 19th century the orientalist fantasy of an exotic pleasure world where men's appetites were willingly indulged began to filter into popular culture, and in the new century it gathered steam. Advertisements began to feature orientalist imagery, and the silent film The Sheik, starring Rudolph Valentino, was the hit film of 1921.

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