Great collections of Western art such as the National Gallery's reflect centuries of contact with the Muslim world and admiration for Islamic art. While the European objects in the Gallery's permanent collection were chosen for their own aesthetic qualities and as exemplars of European culture, many reveal the broader international context of their time. To complement the Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition (National Gallery of Art, July 18, 2004 - February 6, 2005), we have identified objects throughout the West Building that illustrate the rich and varied influence of the Islamic world on European art.
During the early Middle Ages, few Europeans ever saw art from Africa and Asia--except for kings and emperors who received marvelous objects as diplomatic gifts. The silk robes, huge tent, and live elephant--named Abu'l Abbas--sent from Baghdad by Caliph Harun al-Rashid to Emperor Charlemagne about 800, for example, became the stuff of legend, celebrated in ninth-century annals and biographies. More luxurious artifacts arrived during the eleventh century as booty from military expeditions in Islamic Sicily, Spain, and North Africa. The Crusades (1098-1291) brought Westerners in direct contact with eastern Islamic lands. Crusader armies and pilgrims to the Holy Land discovered a more refined civilization and a richer material culture than they knew at home. Merchants from Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Marseilles, and Barcelona shipped increasing quantities of luxury manufactured goods--silks, inlaid metalwork, painted glassware, and ceramics with the luster of gold--from ports in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. During the rule of the Mongol khans (1256-1353) the whole of the Asian mainland from Mesopotamia to China opened to European traders and travelers. Despite religious and political differences and periodic wars, Europeans maintained diplomatic and commercial relations with Egypt and Syria from the 1340s, with the Ottoman Empire from the 1450s, and with Safavid Iran from the early 1600s.
The Gallery's Late-Medieval and Renaissance-period collections reveal this European fascination with Islamic art--in depictions of the objects themselves and in the appropriation of Islamic designs. The portrait of an Italian cardinal makes ostentatious display of his fine Turkish carpet. The golden halo of a Florentine Madonna is patterned after a brass tray with an Arabic inscription from Syria or Egypt. Ceramics and metalwork made in Italy, France, and Germany were inspired not only by Islamic artistic forms and techniques but by Muslim customs as well.
Nineteenth-century French paintings such as Renoir's Odalisque show new interest in the scenery, people, and culture of Egypt and of French-occupied North Africa, which were often highly romanticized. Increasing foreign travel in the nineteenth century encouraged the collection of old Islamic objects. One of the Gallery's founding donors, for example, shared the growing esteem for early oriental carpets and presented several fine ones to the Gallery. These are the only Islamic objects in the collection--but hardly the only appearance of Islamic art.