Orientalism and the West at Denver Art Museum

The museum’s ‘Near East to Far West’ exhibition asks critical questions about the colonial context of Western art but misses something important.

“Near East to Far West,” an exhibition at Colorado’s Denver Art Museum, intentionally shows viewers a false depiction of history. The exhibition is designed to make us reckon with colonialism in the Western United States and the Near East through the gorgeous, yet fantastical, artworks that French and American artists created with inspiration from those frontiers. The artwork’s influence has continued to warp the Western world’s popular conceptions of colonized peoples, with harmful effects. 

But while the exhibition grapples with these gorgeous fabrications, it doesn’t show the viewers much of what they hide. The real world outside the images remains elusive.


Seven years ago, when JR Henneman first became director of the Denver Art Museum’s Petrie Institute for Western American art, she felt that something about the collection “made no sense.” The paintings, which ostensibly depict the West, had nothing to do with the region as she knew it. (Henneman grew up in Montana.) Instead, they reminded her of classic European Orientalist depictions of the Middle East and North Africa.

Henneman started researching a simple question: What did “Orientalism,” a 19th century European art style that depicted the Middle East and Asia with excessive exoticism, have to do with painting the Western United States? 

“I posed this question thinking I might find something, I might find nothing,” Henneman said during an April event at the museum. “It turns out I found a whole lot of something.”

During the 19th century, both the United States and France were engaged in colonial missions, with the U.S. expanding westward and France colonizing Algeria. Within this shared colonial context, Henneman found direct teacher-student links between French Orientalists and Euro-American painters who depicted the West. She found a profusion of French Orientalist art in American art collections. And she found a ready impulse among 19th century American entertainers and artists to conflate these very different landscapes and their people. 


“Bab-el-Gharbi Street in Laghouat (La Rue Bab-el-Gharbi à Laghouat),” by Eugène Fromentin, 1859. Courtesy of Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai, France (left). “Mesa Village,” by Henry Farny, about 1891. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum: The Roath Collection (right).


Henneman and interpretive specialist Lauren Thompson have presented this story for modern viewers at the Denver Art Museum in “Near East to Far West,” an exhibition that seeks to “reinsert Western American art into its transatlantic context.” Alongside more than 80 Orientalist and Western artworks, the exhibition includes text and audio commentary from scholars and local community members, a special poem by Jennifer Elise Foerster (Mvskoke), an AI-generated moving art piece by Steven Yazzie (Navajo/Diné), and even a pair of custom-made perfumes by Egyptian-Lebanese-Canadian perfumer Dana El Masri. The exhibition is on display until May 29. 

In recasting Western history through such an unusual lens, the exhibition earns Modern Art Notes Podcast host Tyler Green’s description as “one of the most thoughtful, interrogative American art exhibitions of the year.”

The exhibition is full of “gorgeous artworks,” as Henneman says — but those artworks have troubling legacies. Rather than faithful depictions of Indigenous and North African societies, the images are usually overdramatized products of Western imagination. Some of the artists even painted places and people they had never seen or encountered, all from the comfort of studios in Baltimore and Paris. These images are not ethnographic; they are designed to evoke a sense of grandeur, violence and seduction that embalms the living worlds they represent in static, dramatic forms. It portrays the reality of colonized peoples as a distant legend. 

“Man in a Large Hat (Homme au Grand Chapeau),” by Alphonse-Étienne Dinet, 1901. Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay and Cité nationale de l'histoire et de l'immigration, Paris (left). “Indian Mystic,” by Catharine Carter Critcher, about 1924. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum (right).

What is brutally lacking in the paintings is not the artists’ ability to genuinely humanize their subjects — Alphonse-Étienne Dinet’s Homme au Grand Chapeau, for instance, strikes the viewer as a sensitive, emotional portrait of a real Algerian man. What is lacking, hovering just outside the frames, is the living history of colonization and colonized peoples that was occurring around the artists at the time the paintings were created. 

In some places, the exhibition speaks to this missing piece. For the most part, though, the exhibition lacks much detail about the people — French, Euro-American, Indigenous, Algerian or other — who were actually living in these colonial contexts at the time and saw them through a non-Orientalist lens. As a result, it’s difficult for the viewer to accurately appreciate how truthful or absurd the paintings really are. 

What is lacking, hovering just outside the frames, is the living history of colonization and colonized peoples that was occurring around the artists at the time the paintings were created. 

In organizing “Near East to Far West,” Thompson says she wanted to incorporate “voices (that) aren’t necessarily being heard through the kind of traditional art historical conversation.” During the five years it took to create the exhibition, she and Henneman conducted visitor panels with local community members, many with Middle Eastern and Native heritage, to discuss how the legacies of these paintings have continued to harm those communities today. Quotes from these community members, along with modern scholars and art historians, run throughout the exhibition. 

Ernest Blumenschein, American, “White Blanket and Blue Spruce,” 1922. Collection of Vaughn O. Vennerberg II, Dallas, Texas. Courtesy Sotheby's.

Meanwhile, Henneman urges visitors to also see the “Speaking with Light” exhibition, which is running until May 22 on the museum’s first floor and features contemporary Indigenous photographers. The sobering medium of photography, along with the bleeding edge of modern life depicted in the photographs, is “an excellent counterpoint,” as Henneman puts it, to the Orientalist images in “Near East to Far West.” In “Speaking with Light,” Native artists use their work to reclaim a sense of ongoing history, modernity and agency for Native people — exactly what the amber-encased legends in most of the Orientalist paintings deny. 

But while “Near East to Far West” combats the tropes presented in its paintings through modern commentary, it includes little material or perspective from people who witnessed these colonial missions while they were happening. In a way, that absence allows the viewer to relax comfortably into the idea that, since we are modern, we have the skills necessary to view this art critically. It obscures the fact that people in the 19th century were also critical of these colonial missions in their own way. It’s hard to understand the true meaning of these paintings without knowing the history they distort.

Only upon seeing that image,
which is
does the monstrous absurdity in some of the romanticized Western paintings become so real.  

The exhibit does include several cases of 19th century imagery that is not Orientalist. The most jarring example is a blown-up 1892 photograph of thousands of bison skulls that were soon to be made into fertilizer at a plant in Detroit. Only upon seeing that image, which is truly chilling, does the monstrous absurdity in some of the romanticized Western paintings become so real.  

On a small screen beside that photograph, the exhibition includes a video made through a partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and members of the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, in which community members from several tribes tell the story of restoring bison to Montana’s landscapes. Their account instills themes of hope, resiliency and agency among Native communities. The story of Native people is not defined by destruction and destitution. But surely there were also Native and Middle Eastern people in the 19th century who felt hope and acted with agency, too. 

With modern Native art on one hand, and historical Orientalist paintings on the other, the Orientalist paintings still get to claim the viewer’s idea of history — even if the viewer knows it’s a fantasy.

Austin Corona writes on environmental politics in the Western United States and the Middle East. He currently covers water issues for Aspen Daily News and writes a monthly Substack about the water crisis in the WestEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.