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Orientalist Paintings: Behind the Veil


An exhibition of Orientalist paintings examines Western attempts to depict the lives of 19th-century Muslim women.

Théodore Chassériau, Woman and Little Girl of Constantine with a Gazelle

Théodore Chassériau, Woman and Little Girl of Constantine with a Gazelle, 1849.

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Of all the exotic subjects sought by the European painter-travelers now known as Orientalists, none was as seductive—or as elusive—as the harem. The word, imported from Arabic via Turkish, literally means a forbidden zone. Figuratively, it signifies that portion of an Islamic household reserved for women and children, off-limits to any men who are not close relatives. In the Indian subcontinent, it is called zanana (women’s quarters), and in a sense the concept of the harem is as much architectural as it is religious and social. An upper-class Ottoman home, for example, was divided into two parts—the haremlik (inner, private space) and the selamlik (outer, public space). Only the latter would have been accessible to foreign men, so we can say with certainty that not one of the harem paintings that form such an important part of the canon of Orientalism—a subset of 19th-century Academic realism—could possibly have been done from life.

Nevertheless, at least some of these artists aspired to accuracy and based their paintings on contemporary eyewitness accounts of harem life, supplemented by their own observations of the material culture of the Muslim world. Others unabashedly dealt in exploitative fantasy, creating lurid scenes replete with over-the-top luxury, nudity, belly dancing, eunuchs, and suggestions of sexual servitude. This duality in the representation of harems reflects the tension in Orientalist art in general between two motivations, one reportorial and even ethnographic, the other sensationalistic and myth-mongering. For both categories of artists (though sometimes both motivations were at work in one artist, and even in one painting), it was precisely the mystery and strangeness of the harem, from a Western point of view, that made it such an attractive subject. And while attitudes have changed since the era of colonialism, the harem theme retains some of its fascination for today’s viewers, and there may even be renewed interest in light of our current need, born of political realities, to understand Islamic social practices.


Considering the importance of the harem in art, one would imagine that a dedicated exhibition would have been mounted long ago, but in fact the first one ever just opened late last month, at the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Fla. “Harem: Unveiling the Mystery of Orientalist Art” (through April 16) puts on view some 30 paintings and sculptures, as well as more than 15 related photographs, documents, and ephemera that clarify the role of harem imagery in elite and popular culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Flagler, an American oil, railroad, and hotel tycoon, shared the taste of his fellow Gilded Age collectors for Orientalism and owned at least six harem paintings, all of which are in the current show. Tracy Kamerer, chief curator at the Flagler, explains that she came up with the idea for the show in the course of studying the history of Henry Flagler’s collections; eventually she tracked down the six harem paintings and arranged for them to be loaned. Five were housed in a former Flagler hotel building and are owned by his descendants, while the sixth is owned by the Flagler System and is normally on display at The Breakers in Palm Beach; it used to hang outside the resort’s seafood bar, according to Kamerer. “I wanted to gather these paintings together and provide some context on why they were appreciated,” she says.

She also wanted to shed some light on the gap between harem myth and harem reality. One of the Flagler-owned paintings in the show, The Sultan’s Favorite (1886), by the Spanish painter Juan Giménez Martín, “has everything, the whole myth,” says Kamerer. A fair-skinned, dark-haired beauty reclines on a divan amid marble columns and archways, whiling away the time with embroidery as the turbaned monarch approaches, treading a red carpet unrolled just for him. In the flower-strewn foreground, an incense burner dispenses its aromatic fumes, while a leopard skin, with head attached, draws the eye to the center of the picture. The woman, while she indulges in pleasures of her own, clearly exists for the pleasure of the Sultan.

An undated Odalisque by the French Academic master Jean-Léon Gérôme also hits the high spots of the harem myth. The very term “odalisque” exemplifies the journey of everyday Near Eastern social roles to the status of fantasy-art fodder. The Turkish original, odalik, literally means something to do with a room (oda); by extension, a chambermaid. Such a person wouldn’t go about her work naked, but in Western art from Ingres to Matisse, the odalisque is usually a nude, or at least a half-nude. This sexualization is brazenly evident in Gérôme’s example; not only is the figure unclothed (except for a headband), but she holds a hookah mouthpiece in one hand and gives the viewer an inviting look. Gérôme, as Kamerer points out, knew his market and delivered the goods. Still, he had the realist’s impulse to paint what he saw and an eye that was irresistibly drawn to details. In Odalisque, it seems almost as if he is looking past the lady to focus on the intricate Islamic tilework behind her.

As to the reality of the 19th-century harem, writers are generally better guides than painters, if for no other reason than that at least some of them were women. Julia Pardoe, an Englishwoman, traveled to Constantinople in the 1830s with her father, a major in the army. Her book Romance of the Harem (1839), despite the title, aimed to tell British readers the plain truth. “She laid it all out there,” says Kamerer. “Women in harems had rights, owned property, weren’t sex slaves, and were probably transgressed upon less than Western women.” Another book with almost the same title, Romance of a Harem, published anonymously (in French) in 1901 but set in the 1870s, offered readers a journey even further behind the scenes, purporting to be the memoir of a Circassian girl who lived in the harem of an Ottoman prince. “I grew up in the peace of the harem, loved and respected,” writes the author. “The respect and deference with which men treat women in the harem might well serve as an example to many men in civilized nations.” She describes the women of the harem as spending their days mainly socializing with each other, playing music, singing, and engaging in other cultural activities, and taking part in political intrigues.

The more reportorially inclined Orientalists, traveling throughout the Near East and North Africa, came close to this version of harem life. “There were also artists who represented what the reality really was,” says Kamerer. “The harem was a feminine sphere, due to the dictates of Islam, but it was not a scandalous sphere, and these women were not powerless. Most people didn’t want to see that, though; they wanted the romantic titillating stuff.” The Flagler exhibition includes paintings that, while they definitely partake of Orientalism’s predilection for sumptuous surfaces, depict their subjects more accurately and sensitively.

Sometimes it is quite subtle touches that give the lie to the myths. Édouard-Louis Dubufe’s Lady of the Harem is fully clothed, in textiles so eye-catching that at first one might not fully absorb the fact that she is reading a book. Engaging in a solitary intellectual pursuit, this educated woman is improving her mind instead of prostituting her body. Morning on the Bosphorus, by the American artist Frederick Arthur Bridgman, depicts an ordinary pleasure trip on a boat rowed by male servants, in which the women are simply relaxing and enjoying their leisure. One trails her hand in the water while another plucks a stringed instrument. Benjamin Constant’s Scarf Dance, also an outdoor scene, shows a group of women amusing themselves on the roof of a building by the seaside. The fresh colors are a relief from the dark and murky interior lighting of so many harem pictures, and the dance itself is simply joyous rather than seductive. Kamerer contrasts Constant’s painting with one by Gérôme, Dancing Girl (circa 1863), which was not able to travel but is represented at the Flagler show by a print version. This composition, says Kamerer, “is dark and mysterious, with men lurking in the shadows, and the woman looks as if she were in a drug-induced trance.”

The ephemera section of the exhibition features rare books, sheet music (like Irving Berlin’s 1913 number In My Harem), and souvenir photos aimed at tourists. Many of the more stereotypically exotic of these views weren’t even taken in the Near East, while others, produced locally, show Muslim women fully covered and doing ordinary things. “The information was out there, about what the situation in the harem was really like,” says Kamerer. “People chose for different reasons to focus on the mythology instead of on the reality. Was it about imperialism? Yes, but it was also about patriarchy. Making the women look immoral served a patriarchal society in the West that wanted to keep women down.” However, the harem’s impact on Western popular culture went both ways. In the early years of the 20th century, Kamerer points out, harem pants were adopted by the suffragettes, who wore them as a “sign of liberation.”


By John Dorfman


Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: January 2017

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