Benjamin Constant

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant was a French Orientalist painter active in the late 19th century. Though his work was popular and in demand during his time, he is not well known today.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is currently featuring an exhibition of work by Constant and his contemporaries: Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism: From Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in His Time, that runs until May 31, 2015.

In the process of promoting the show (in a manner that should serve as an example of so many other museums that remain clueless about using their websites to advantage for that purpose), the museum has also provided the best selection of images of Constant’s work that I’ve found on the web.

In addition, the museum has published a book based on the show, which is also available from Amazon and other sources.

Constant was a pupil of Alexandre Cabanel, also an Orientalist painter, and Constant worked in the style for many years. In his later career he changed his approach, and devoted himself more to society portraits and large murals.

7 Replies to “Benjamin Constant”

  1. Having a MA in Oriental Philology I have difficulties to admire the “Orientalism” of most of the French painters. They are undeniable good painters qua technique but I dislike their hidden purposes and how they bent the reality to their own phantasies,how they influenced the Western ,patronizing and superior look of the Middle East and Northern Africa by their choice of subjects. Even their long-limbed ,fair female models look fake. Have a look at the paintings of Etienne (Nasreddine ) Dinet, (France,1861–1929), who stayed most of his life in Algeria, mostly in Bou-Saada,”la porte du desert “and famous among painters for its light.He tried to paint real scenes of the people : daily scenes of tawny ,weather-beaten men, joyful innocent children and (naked) women of the Ouled Nail who are short, sturdy and beautiful, in a natural setting. Orientalism it is, but without the dubious underground. … Thank you for your interesting and varied choice of artists ,it keeps your site exciting, one we can look forward to

    1. Thanks for the comment, Hilde.

      I agree — many of the Orientalist painters were painting for the dramatic effect of the exotic (if not outright pandering in the case of the depiction of harem women or slave markets in some cases). For the most part, I put their intention in the same class as the somewhat exaggerated drama of the painters who sold the wilderness of the American landscape to Europeans as exotic and untamed. It sold paintings. I still like the paintings just as paintings, even if they sometimes cross over into fantasy. I do admire those who, as you point out, have a more knowledgable and reasoned approach, or are simply more truthful to what they saw on their visits to the eastern Mediterranean and North African countries (Sargent’s watercolors come to mind).

  2. As an historian, I would only add that these works say as much about the colonial spirit than any other official source. The imagery, the fantasy, the inherent paternalism an yet the mysterious femininity tell us how intricately those elements were intertwined in the experience that Europeans had with the colonial empires. i.e.: The exotic fascination equals the “white man’s mission”. There’s something very human in this experience. Art documents history here. Love it. I’m in Montreal, will go see the exhibit as soon as I can. And thanks for this wonderful website!

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