We all dream of one day travelling to exotic locations on the globe, savouring the strange romanticism of unfamiliar landmarks, climate, food, language, music, and art, then bringing it all back in pictures, souvenirs and memories. And no area on earth is more exotic for Westerners than the Orient. Except for Marco Polo, there was little contact between Europe and the Orient until the dawn of the nineteenth century. Europeans were too wrapped up in themselves and travel too long, hard, and dangerous for them to give in to wanderlust on any grand scale. But a number of military-political events (Napoleon, for instance) in the first half of the century moved to change all that. And with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1863, the East suddenly drew ten thousand miles closer. Europeans began to invade the Orient and Oriental culture began to invade Europe. Of course our definition of "Orient" has changed somewhat since then. In the early 1800s, the Orient was anything east of Greece and south of Sicily. In fact it was there that the first Chinese palace in Europe was built. The god-awful mixture of orient and occident made for one of the strangest (and ugliest) pieces of architecture on earth, resembling nothing from either culture.
European painters of the time, flush with the warm glow of the Romantic era, were quickly draw to the exotic, sometimes even erotic nature of the "Orient." Sometimes they actually travelled to the strange lands the painted, like Antoine-Jean Gros, or Eugene Delacroix, or sometimes they simply imagined it all as did Ingres in his 1863 round painting Turkish Bath, depicting a whole room literally filled with rolling, round mounds of naked female flesh. They painted their visions of grand historic events, Biblical figures, female nudes, and sometimes all three rolled into one, such as Theodore Chasseriau's 1841 semi-nude portrayal of The Bath of Esther or Francesco Hayez's bare-chested Ruth, painted with all the photographic realism of a Vargas centrefold.
But the effect was not all one-sided. In India for instance, Dutch missionaries influenced customs of dress, art, architecture, music and literature. There is an Italian influence in the Taj Mahal. Even today English culture and customs still hold sway in many areas of the subcontinent. In England's Kew Gardens stands a ten-story Chinese pagoda. In Shanghai, China, whole neighbourhoods near the harbour look like they were transplanted stone for stone from France or England. It was in these port cities that western suits and ties first invaded the upper classes of Chinese society. England especially, left its mark all over the East, removing themselves from Hong Kong only in the past year or two. Even our country was not immune. Chinese-Chippendale style furniture was immensely popular here in the early part of the 1800s, coming almost three-quarters of the way around the world, imported from England, from whence the designs, and often the actual pieces, were imported from China itself. And the world hasn't stopped shrinking since.