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“An Ouled Nail Tribal Dancer” c. 1895 by Georges Clairin (French, 1843 – 1919)

Q: What do these two paintings have in common?

A: The Painter!  Georges Glairin (French, 1843-1919)

  • Above left is a painting that fits into the Orientalist genre popular in the 19th century. It’s entitled “An Ouled Nail Tribal Dancer” c. 1985.
  • Above right is Clairin’s most famous work, “Portrait de Sarah Bernhardt” c. 1876 – now exhibited at the Petit Palais in Paris.
Clairin was best known in Paris in the late 19th century as a portraitist, with the ability to capture and render features, clothing, and perhaps more importantly, the personality of the sitter.

Clairin – Portraitist and Traveler

In an era of photography, Clairin was able to capture nuances and subtlety of his subject’s wit, charm, and gaze. Sara Bernhardt is unmistakably herself and her portrait was a favorite of the attendees of the Paris Salon in 1876.
But Clairin was also a traveler and visited North Africa many times during his lifetime, spending whole seasons there sketching and painting. The result of his insightful observations, married with his skill as a painter created images like our Ouled Dancer.

Left: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra by Georges Clairin c. 1893

An Ouled Nail Tribal Dancer

In “An Ouled Nail Tribal Dancer” c. 1895, he captures the essence of this dancer. This painting is quite unlike the “naughty French postcards” sold in the tourist cities of Tangiers, Algiers, Tripoli, and Cairo.

Instead, what we have is a painting that captures the splendid grandeur of the Ouled Nail. We see her layers of fabric, the voluminous Turkish trousers, the sumptuous layers of adornment, and even her two bags, a small purse worn bandolier style and a larger bag worn on her hip.

He recorded a specific individual, a dancer perhaps in that moment of readying herself to take the floor, scanning the audience for the biggest tipper or the most enthusiastic audience participant.

When I was a working pro in restaurants and nightclubs, I would often stand just in the wings and make a mental map of where I wanted to go within the environment. I look at this painting and that moment resonates with me as a dancer, forging recognition and connection.

Do you feel that too?
What moment in her dance do you think the artist captured?

So what’s the lesson learned here? Not all artists working within the Orientalist genre are created equally. We should take the time to evaluate each painting with a critical eye that takes into account the individual experience, training, mission, and goals of each artist.

Dancers in Orientalist Art

If we simply jettison “Orientalist Art” we lose opportunities to gain information about clothing, the texture, color, and the swagger of how it was worn. But in addition in the hands of great artists, we can glean clues about the attitude of the subject, characteristic postures, poses and gestures, their taste and style.

If you are interested in learning more about how to separate the good from the great, the useful from the trivial, the celebrated vs subjugated, join me for my June Talk, “Dancers in Orientalist Art.” Sunday, June 20, Noon Pacific.  Click here to reserve your spot for the live talk with Q&A.
Thank you for all of your support of my ongoing research!
Dawn Devine ~ Davina
April 30, 2021

By Davina

Davina ~ Dawn Devine is a belly dance costume designer, dance instructor and author of more than a dozen publications on Middle Eastern dance.