It is well known that visual cortical neurons respond vigorously to a limited range of stimulus orientations, while their primary afferent inputs, neurons in the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), respond well to all orientations. Mechanisms based on intracortical inhibition and/or converging thalamocortical afferents have previously been suggested to underlie the generation of cortical orientation selectivity; however, these models conflict with experimental data. Here, a 1:4 scale model of a 1700 microns by 200 microms region of layer IV of cat primary visual cortex (area 17) is presented to demonstrate that local intracortical excitation may provide the dominant source of orientation-selective input. In agreement with experiment, model cortical cells exhibit sharp orientation selectivity despite receiving strong iso-orientation inhibition, weak cross-orientation inhibition, no shunting inhibition, and weakly tuned thalamocortical excitation. Sharp tuning is provided by recurrent cortical excitation. As this tuning signal arises from the same pool of neurons that it excites, orientation selectivity in the model is shown to be an emergent property of the cortical feedback circuitry. In the model, as in experiment, sharpness of orientation tuning is independent of stimulus contrast and persists with silencing of ON-type subfields. The model also provides a unified account of intracellular and extracellular inhibitory blockade experiments that had previously appeared to conflict over the role of inhibition. It is suggested that intracortical inhibition acts nonspecifically and indirectly to maintain the selectivity of individual neurons by balancing strong intracortical excitation at the columnar level.