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John Singer Sargent, Old Man with a White Turban (1891)

For Artwork in Focus we explore individual artworks, critiquing their style and discussing their socio-political context. Today we look at Old Man with a White Turban (1891), by John Singer Sargent.

About the Work

Title : Old Man with a White Turban
Artist : John Singer Sargent
Year : 1891
Medium : Oil on Canvas
Dimensions : 59 x 50.5 cm (23 1/4 X 19 7/8 in.)
Location : Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Traces of Orientalism in Art & the Colonial Era

John Singer Sargent was an American expatriated painter, best known for his portraits. In this particular portrait, the artist has represented an old man of colour – possibly from the Middle East.

The work is a great example of Singer Sargent’s famed portraits. However, it is equally an appropriate exemplification of the exoticisation of Eastern cultures by the Western gaze.

During the colonial era, when the French and British empires were at their prime, the gaze of the Western artist turned East-ward for inspiration. The history of art had always been told from a Eurocentric perspective, while Eastern art practises were never truly recognised as art. Further, colonisers of India and the Middle East treated local inhabitants as ‘the other’ owing to differences in culture, language and colour.

As a consequence, while colonisers exploited the people of the East by enslaving them, artists exploited them by misrepresenting them. In Western depictions of Eastern cultures, artists emphasised stereotypes. The colonised were hardly ever depicted as working class, regular people. Instead, they were seen as mysterious ‘magic men’ living in mystical lands. In Singer Sargent’s painting, he shows a simply old man, with a turban, through the oriental gaze.

Other Details

John Singer Sargent’s Old Man with a White Turban is housed in the Harvard Art Museums’ collection Room 2120 of European and American Art, 17th–19th century. It is part of the museum’s The Lure of the East collection.

To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit Artwork in Focus.

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