REVIEW | Drawing on Arabian Nights – Courtauld Gallery, London

An easy display to miss, Drawing on Arabian Nights at the Courtauld Gallery is a thrilling analysis of Europe’s obsession with Orientalism and the impact of the folk tales in Edward Lane’s translation of One Thousand and One Nights (ألف ليلة و ليلة) on 19th-century artists. An illustrated edition of the Arabian Nights executed by the Dalziel Brothers is also on view.

I found the drawings of interiors and urban spaces by John Frederick Lewis particularly lovely, an artist who actually in Cairo for a decade. They really evoke the spirit and vibrancy of the area. His character studies are also shown alongside those by Jean-Étienne Liotard and David Wilkie. Glyn Warren Philpot has a nice interior scene too.

The section focusing on the fictional odalisque was especially fascinating for me. This stereotypical conception of a sexually-submissive, exotically-dressed female in a harem was a false idea that gripped the 19th-century artistic imagination, as shown here by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. On display is the Courtauld’s graphite study for Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque (Louvre, Paris), arguably the most iconic picture of this subject. Shown alongside is Manet’s etching with aquatint of the same subject. Neither artist had travelled outside of Europe.

There’s also a more modern component to this section, encompassing a watercolour by Robin Philipson and a mixed media piece by Yasmine Seale, a poet and translator of a new edition of the Arabian Nights. It’s a little out of my depths here.

Check the free display out in the Project Space on your next Courtauld visit this month!

Drawing on Arabian Nights runs until 3 June 2023 in The Project Space, Courtauld Gallery, London,


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