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How Can we Read the Painting?

Resource created by Leeds Museums and Galleries | Leeds Art Gallery.

This resource is part of the Museum Snapshot collection - a collection of smaller resources perfect for starters, plenaries or spare moments to explore something fascinating.

Oriental Pastime by Thomas Dicksee
Oriental Pastime by Thomas Dicksee

At first glance this painting by Thomas Dicksee is about two women in beautiful clothes made from luxurious fabrics. There’s a lot of jewellery; in their hair, around their necks, and on their arms. One woman seems to have green wine-gum looking semi-precious stones as decoration on the long coat over her dress. They are in a room with a patterned window covering, a chair covered in quilted material, and a table with grapes, a pomegranate and full-bloomed roses in a vase on top. Close by is a glittering pot with chains hanging from it, it could be an incense burner, and using our imagination we can smell pleasant smoke filling the room.

One of the women holds a grey parrot, which is native to equatorial Africa. It is interesting to ask, who are these women and where are they within the story of this painting?

Being an art detective and looking deeply into artworks can help us all notice ideas about the world, in this case in the 19th century. The name the artist has given the painting ‘Oriental Pastime’, draws our attention to ‘the Orient’. The Orient was/is a historical description for the societies and peoples who inhabit the places of Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Looking into it, we can find that it is a way of bringing together very different countries, and that it is contrasted with ‘the West’ (the category in which the United Kingdom is placed). ‘Oriental’ is a problematic term to describe someone or something from ‘the Orient’. It is a term that many find offensive.

Differences are interesting as long as you are thoughtful about how you think, talk or write about them. Is this artwork picturing a particular place and activity? Or, is it a fantasy that makes a place seem a certain way that is untruthful?

Some artists in Victorian England imagined the countries they called ‘the East’ in a way that made them feel powerful or more important. Much that is pictured in this painting, the fruit, the bird, the fabric, the pearls and incense as examples, would have been taken or purchased from countries far away from the United Kingdom. The parrot is a good clue, where in Africa would the grey parrot have come from, why and how was it taken from there?

The picturing of the women is also interesting - if this painting shows the life of women in a country that is not England, is it truthful about their pastimes (things they do in their spare time)? And, are the women fully engaged in an activity or just there for us to ‘look at’? The latticed window covering is part of this painting’s story. As a ‘Mashrabiya’ it is an architectural feature pictured in many European ‘Orientalist’ paintings to give the impression of peering into the places where women might be living and working. Thinking about the women directly, questions can be asked about their cultural identity. In doing so it draws attention to the artist’s knowledge and judgements about ethnic backgrounds, and our own as we try to make sense of who they might be.

By taking time to notice the elements that make up the painting, it is clear that it is a mishmash of things and linked ideas that have been brought together as a fantasy for the artist, and for the people who would own and see the artwork. It is important that we also investigate and think about all the elements, by doing so we can see the dangers of not taking care when we think about or make artworks picturing the people and things from communities that we don’t know well.

Activity Idea

  • Find out about artist Lubaina Himid (see Supporting Links in Resources). She makes artworks that explore race, identity, memory and history. Think about the questions you would like to ask Lubaina about the artwork that she creates.