It was in Moorish Spain, which he visited in 1840 with Eugène Piot, that Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), novelist, poet, librettist, and art, literature and theatre critic, formed his initial vision of the Orient.
The Alhambra was constantly to inspire him: in his Voyage en Espagne, published in 1843, Gautier described at length the capital of the last western European Moorish kingdom, which provided him with an inexhaustible stock of images. It had also charmed Henry Swinburne and Chateaubriand –concluding his itinerary in the Orient where Gautier had begun it. In 1837, Joseph Philibert Girault de Prangey had just published his Monuments arabes et moresques de Cordoue, Séville et Grenade, dessinés et mesurés en 1832 et 1833 the second volume of which brought together his Souvenirs de Grenade et de l’Alhambra: the colour plates revealed to the public the extraordinary decorative refinement of Nasrid palaces, as can be found in some of the poems in España (1845). Oriental scenes would now constantly model Gautier’s imagery.
In 1842, he published La Mille et Deuxième nuit (reprinted in 1852 in La Peau de tigre) in which appears a peri, a female genie from Arabic-Persian mythology which also inspired Victor Hugo, and which can equally be found that same year in a “fantastical ballet in two acts”, La Péri, which Gautier composed with Jean Coralli on a score by Friedrich Burgmüller, and which premiered in Paris, at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique, on 17th July 1843. A taste for the Orient had appeared very early, through hashish which Gautier enjoyed as much as his admirer Baudelaire (La Pipe d’opium, 1838; Le Club des Hachichins, 1846), through books and visits to the Louvre, where he discovered Egyptian art, which inspired him with several short stories and a famous novel (Une nuit de Cléopâtre in 1838, Le Pied de momie in 1840, and Le Roman de la momie in 1857). In 1845, Gautier discovered North Africa, where he travelled as an Orientalist, in the steps of the painters he admired: his unfinished Voyage pittoresque en Algérie : Alger, Oran, Constantine, la Kabylie (1845) remained unpublished until 1973. But this was not yet the Orient that he dreamed of discovering, and for which in 1843, his friend Gérard de Nerval left as a pathfinder, charged, as his friend Eugène de Nully had already been told to do in 1836, to send him back “a few pots of local colour”, to feed his imagination: for a long time, Gautier, who lived thanks to this activities as a journalist and serial novelist, had to picture the Orient through the descriptions of his wealthier friends: in December 1846, he wrote a marvellous description of Constantinople in the preface to a collection of drawings by his friend Camille Rogier: La Turquie, mœurs et usages des Orientaux au dix-neuvième siècle. Then, in 1852, he at last discovered the city of his dreams, as correspondent to the La Presse edited by Émile de Girardin, who financed his trip, as well as that of his companion, the singer Ernesta Grisi, who was a great theatrical success. Constantinople, the fruit of two months’ peregrinations, appeared in 1853. In it, the capital of the Ottoman Empire is described in all its aspects, down to the smallest detail, with a masterful touch, guided by a painter’s eye, to such an extent that this narrative turned out to be the liveliest and the most picturesque of the descriptions of Constantinople, which Gautier ironically opposed to the ugliness of Western civilisation, which he found to be “quite farcical, despite the progress of the Enlightenment”.
Gautier waited until 1869, and the ceremonies in honour of the inauguration of the Suez Canal, before discovering Egypt, thanks to the invitation of the Khedive in the escort accompanying Empress Eugénie. He confided the report of his journey, which is also told in detail in his correspondence, to the Journal Officiel in 1870. These episodes were to be brought together in 1877 in the posthumous collection L’Orient, which unites a large number of articles and prefaces. Ironically, an unfortunate accident turned his stay into a motionless voyage: Gautier broke his arm in the sea, and was condemned to observe Cairo from the terrace of his hotel (Louise Colet, the lady of letters and companion of Gustave Flaubert, who was also invited to these festivities, tells of this incident in Les Pays lumineux. Voyage en Orient, 1879). Destiny thus turned the land of the Pharaohs into the “armchair Orient”, which had for so long fed the imagination of the author of Roman de la momie, who, in 1843, declared to Gérard de Nerval: “I am a Turk, not from Constantinople, but from Egypt. It seems to me that I have lived in the Orient; and when, during carnival, I dress up in a caftan and some authentic fez, it feels like I am putting back on my usual clothes. I have always been surprised by the fact that I do not understand Arabic readily; I must have forgotten it. In Spain, everything that recalled the Moors interested me as much as if I had been a child of Islam, and I took sides with them against the Christians.”