As the French acquired colonies in Africa and Asia (what was known as the larger Orient), they also acquired a taste for exotic foreign cultures-- assuming those cultures remained under their control.  Exotic dress, dance, and mores were extremely appealing as long as one had a choice to take them or leave them-- painters, writers, and even composers, of the era did both.

Selections from Fleurs du mal
By Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

In the following three poems, Baudelaire, like Gide later, paints the picture of an Orient where the oppressive rules of French culture and its state religion, Catholicism, disappear, and a gentle permissiveness and lassitude prevails.

Parfum exotique Exotic perfume

Quand, les deux yeux fermés, en un soir chaud d'automne,
Je respire l'odeur de ton sein chaleureux,
Je vois se dérouler des rivages heureux
Qu'éblouissent les feux d'un soleil monotone;

Une île paresseuse où la nature donne
Des arbres singuliers et des fruits savoureux;
Des hommes dont le corps est mince et vigoureux,
Et des femmes dont l'oeil par sa franchise étonne.

Guidé par ton odeur vers de charmants climats,
Je vois un port rempli de voiles et de mâts
Encor tout fatigués par la vague marine,

Pendant que le parfum des verts tamariniers,
Qui circule dans l'air et m'enfle la narine,
Se mêle dans mon âme au chant des mariniers.

When, with closed eyes in the warm autumn night,
I breathe the fragrance of thy bosom bare,
My dream unfurls a clime of loveliest air,
Drenched in the fiery sun's unclouded light.

An indolent island dowered with heaven's delight,
Trees singular and fruits of savour rare,
Men having sinewy frames robust and spare,
And women whose clear eyes are wondrous bright.

Led by thy fragrance to those shoresI hail
A charmed harbour thronged with mast and sail,
Still wearied with the quivering sea's unrest;

What time the scent of the green tamarinds
That thrills the air and fills my swelling breast
Blends with the mariners' song and the sea-winds.

English translation reprinted from Baudelaire, his prose and poetry, ed. by T. R. Smith, 1919.

To a Malabar woman

Link to English translation

À une Malabaraise

Tes pieds sont aussi fins que tes mains, et ta hanche
Est large à faire envie à la plus belle blanche;
À l'artiste pensif ton corps est doux et cher;
Tes grands yeux de velours sont plus noirs que ta chair.
Aux pays chauds et bleus où ton Dieu t'a fait naître,
Ta tâche est d'allumer la pipe de ton maître,
De pourvoir les flacons d'eaux fraîches et d'odeurs,
De chasser loin du lit les moustiques rôdeurs,
Et, dès que le matin fait chanter les platanes,

D'acheter au bazar ananas et bananes.
Tout le jour, où tu veux, tu mènes tes pieds nus,
Et fredonnes tout bas de vieux airs inconnus;
Et quand descend le soir au manteau d'écarlate,
Tu poses doucement ton corps sur une natte,
Où tes rêves flottants sont pleins de colibris,
Et toujours, comme toi, gracieux et fleuris.

Pourquoi, l'heureuse enfant, veux-tu voir notre France,
Ce pays trop peuplé que fauche la souffrance,
Et, confiant ta vie aux bras forts des marins,
Faire de grands adieux à tes chers tamarins?
Toi, vêtue à moitié de mousselines frêles,
Frissonnante là-bas sous la neige et les grêles,
Comme tu pleurerais tes loisirs doux et francs
Si, le corset brutal emprisonnant tes flancs
Il te fallait glaner ton souper dans nos fanges
Et vendre le parfum de tes charmes étranges,
Oeil pensif, et suivant, dans nos sales brouillards,
Des cocotiers absents les fantômes épars!

Invitation to a Journey

My sister, my dear
Consider how fair,
Together to live it would be!
Down yonder to fly
To love, till we die,
In the land which resembles thee.
Those suns that rise
'Neath erratic skies,
— No charm could be like unto theirs —
So strange and divine,
Like those eyes of thine
Which glow in the midst of their tears.

There, all is order and loveliness,
Luxury, calm and voluptuousness.

The tables and chairs,
Polished bright by the years,
Would decorate sweetly our rooms,
And the rarest of flowers
Would twine round our bowers
And mingle their amber perfumes:
The ceilings arrayed,
And the mirrors inlaid,
This Eastern splendour among,
Would furtively steal
O'er our skuls, and appeal
With its tranquillous native tongue.

There, all is order and loveliness,
Luxury, calm and voluptuousness.

In the harbours, peep,
At the vessels asleep
(Their humour is always to roam),
Yet it is but to grant
Thy smallest want
From the ends of the earth that they come,
The sunsets beam
Upon meadow and stream,
And upon the city entire
'Neath a violet crest,
The world sinks to rest,
Illumed by a golden fire.

There, all is order and loveliness,
Luxury, calm and voluptuousness.

L'invitation au voyage

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D'aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.

Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

Des meubles luisants,
Polis par les ans,
Décoreraient notre chambre;
Les plus rares fleurs
Mêlant leurs odeurs
Aux vagues senteurs de l'ambre,
Les riches plafonds,
Les miroirs profonds,
La splendeur orientale,
Tout y parlerait
À l'âme en secret
Sa douce langue natale.

Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

Vois sur ces canaux
Dormir ces vaisseaux
Dont l'humeur est vagabonde;
C'est pour assouvir
Ton moindre désir
Qu'ils viennent du bout du monde.
— Les soleils couchants
Revêtent les champs,
Les canaux, la ville entière,
D'hyacinthe et d'or;
Le monde s'endort
Dans une chaude lumière.

Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

English translation reprinted from Cyril Scott, Baudelaire: The Flowers of Evil (London: Elkin Mathews, 1909)

 

Images

This drawing, “La manna [manna, godsends] dans le desert,” from Le Rire, Apr. 1, 1903, gives ample indication of the riches imagined to be available in the Arab desert.

And here, in a full page display, the Courrier Français of June, 1903 fantasizes that the residents of northern Africa will come entertain Parisians in their very own amusement park, the Jardin d'Acclimatation.

The journalists had learned from their painters. Delacroix was one of the first great French artists to travel to Northern Africa, benefiting from the new colonialism, and his paintings of the women, wild beasts and exotic scenery he encountered there count among his greatest works.

  Eugène Delacroix, “Femmes d’Alger” (1834)

Eugène Delacroix, “Femmes d’Alger” (1834)

Picasso's variant on the Delacroix makes the sexuality of the original far more explicit.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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   Pablo Picasso  “Les femmes d’Alger (d’après Delacroix)”  (1955)       Source  ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

Pablo Picasso “Les femmes d’Alger (d’après Delacroix)” (1955) 

Source (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Gerome is oddly under-appreciated in America, but, like Delacroix, he was one of the first French artists to "paint" Orientalism.  His naked boy with snake combines the appeal of magic, sexuality, and wild beasts.  The colorful tiles, weapons, costumes, and music-making that surround the snake-charmer only add to his seductive "Otherness."

  Jean-Léon Gerôme 1824-1904) , The Snake Charmer (1879)

Jean-Léon Gerôme 1824-1904), The Snake Charmer (1879)

Here, in the bright colors of the Fauvists, Matisse joins Delacroix and Gerome in conveying the unfettered sexuality artists sought in Arab culture.

  Matisse (1869-1954),  Moorish Woman with Upheld Arms  (1923)

Matisse (1869-1954), Moorish Woman with Upheld Arms (1923)

In the end, this poster featuring the newly built Eiffel Tower for the Exposition of 1889, makes clear that no foreign  culture rivaled that of France.  The Exposition featured splendid pavilions from around the world, particularly those from the French protectorates and colonies, but all those pavilions were as nothing compared to the towering presence of the Eiffel Tower. Nationalism and colonialism went hand in hand.

 

Musical examples

Pagodes from Estampes, 1903 (Walter Gieseking, 1953)

This evocation of Far Eastern temples revolves around the whole-tone scale and sounds of gongs, both reminiscent of the Javanese gamelan which had entranced Debussy at the 1889 Paris World Exposition.

La Soirée dans Grenade from Estampes, 1903 (Gieseking, 1953)

The second piece from Estampes refers to Grenada, Spain. Spain is geographically closer than to Paris than Java, but its culture is far removed and the exoticism of its Arabs was irresistible. The great Moorish palace in Grenada, the Alhambra, inspired several of Debussy's piano works.

Pour l'Egyptienne from Six épigraphes antiques, 1914 (Gaby and Robert Casadesus)

The Épigraphes antiques are short pieces that appeared in both a four-hand and solo version.  Originally inspired by Louÿs' poems, Chansons Bilitis, falsely attributed by the poet himself  to a young woman from ancient Greece, they are all exotically foreign in their outlook. "Pour l'Egyptienne" provides a very specific geographical locale for Debussy's imagination while the other titles are more generalized.

Saint-Saëns, Piano Concerto no. 5, 1896 (Thibaudet, 2011)

Saint-Saëns was more blatant than Debussy in his Orientalism, and this piano concerto, nick-named "The Egyptian," is only one example.  His Africa Fantasie for piano and orchestra is another large-scale souvenir of his travels to the French colonies.

La Puerta del Vino, Prelude no. 3, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)
(Note: this and other links to the Preludes require a free Spotify account)

The Puerta del Vino (Door of wine) is the name of one of the doors at the Alhambra, and Debussy evokes it, and more largely, the culture of the Moors who built it, with sultry habañera rhythms and what he calls "brusque oppositions of violence and passionate sweetness."

Lindaraja for two pianos, 1901 (Katia and Marielle Labèque)

This virtuoso duo piece is yet another ode to the Alhambra and to the sensuality of France's neighbors to the South.  For a composer so grounded in the dark and chilly winters of Paris, Grenada was indeed a paradise attainable only through music.

Chansons de Bilitis, 1897-1898 (Elly Ameling, Dalton Baldwin)

Here we have the songs which Debussy chose to set from his friend Pierre Louÿs' larger set of poetry of the same name. Debussy's friendship with Louÿs, his fascination with Louÿs' travels, and his own yearning for a departure from the grayness of his quotidian existence, no doubt all contributed to his fascination with this highly erotic poetry.  He later set 12 of the poems for 2 flutes, 2 harps, celeste and a reciter, and used six for the Épigraphes antiques for solo or four-hand piano mentioned above.