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Saturday, 27 November 2010

Romantic Orientalism: The Harem

By Alexandra A Jopp

In the 19th century, more and more artists traveled to the Middle East and North Africa. English painters went to India and Egypt, while French painters explored North Africa, especially Algeria and Morocco. According to Eric Underwood, “the conquest of Algeria during the reign of Louis-Philippe also aroused the interest of the French public and helped to increase the popularity of oriental characters.” (226). The East had a special appeal to artists of the Romantic era, particularly Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Theodore Chasseriau and Eugene Fromentin. Orientalism and exotica begins with Delacroix (1798-1863). His first Orientalist painting, The Women of Algiers (1834), is not only an enchanting masterpiece but also one of his most important works.

Eugene Delacroix.
The Women of Algiers, 1834.
Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Perceptions of Islamic culture in the West result not only from the Arabic language, mosques and the Koran, and stories from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, but also from an institution that played an important role in the formation of both the internal and external policies of the Islamic world: the harem. Delacroix, with Algerian Women in their Apartment, offered one of the only European images of this unique world that was produced by an eyewitness. The painting’s bright colors and sensuality gave its European viewers their first look into the mysterious world of the Middle East. In this work, the family and the harem represent a center of erotic pleasure, and the harem represents the absolute authority of a man over a woman. It was a symbol of power, luxury, wealth and fashion to have many women – commonly called slaves or odalisques – of different nationalities in a harem. Delacroix’ paintings cemented in European minds the image of the Middle East as a place of sensual delights. Other painters would visit these themes, including Jean Leon Gerome in Pool in a Harem and The Grand Bath at Bursa, both of which represent the imagined erotic utopia of the East.

Jean Léone Gérôme (1824-1904)
The Harem Pool. 1876.
The Hermitage - St. Petersburg.

Jean Léone Gérôme (1824-1904) 
The Great Bath at Bursa, 1885.
Private Collection
As seen with Algerian Women in Their Apartment, novel sexual practices are often among the most captivating features of a foreign culture and the harem was certainly novel to 19th century European Christians. Harem paintings – and Delacroix was certainly not the only artist to work with this theme – were stylistically traditional, with a plane treatment of the images, prevailing horizontal lines, precise, smooth, dark contours of figures, well-planned spacing and carefully chosen colors. Oriental harem paintings were moderately erotic but not too sexually explicit. They combined two traditions – Oriental (plane treatment of images; “carnal” colors; motley Eastern ornaments of clothes and draperies) and Western European (absence of “shocking” images; static character of subjects). Jean Leon Gerome (1824-1904) traveled extensively throughout Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Palestine and used those experiences to produce realistic pictures of the East. Fréderic Masson records an entertaining account by Gérôme (probably in a letter) of his experience:

During a stay in Bursa, I was taken by the architecture of the baths, and they certainly offered a chance to study nudes. It wasn’t just a question of going to see what was going on inside, and of replacing [some men by some women], I had to have a sketch of this interior; and since the temperature inside was rather high, I didn’t hesitate to sketch in the simple apparel of a beauty just aroused from her sleep—that is, in the buff. Sitting on my tripod, my paint box on my knees, my palette in my hand, I was a little grotesque, but you have to know how to adapt yourself as necessary. I had the idea of painting my portrait in this costume, but I dropped it, fearing that my image (dal vero) might get me too much attraction and launch me in a career as a Don Juan. (30)

With precise depictions of exotic people, clothes, architecture and settings, Gerome’s Oriental works have documentary value. Critics, in fact, have described him as an artist-ethnographer. Among his best-known works is Pool in a Harem (circa 1876), which presents two white women and a black servant amidst carefully detailed Oriental tiles, furniture and architecture. The precision of Gerome’s Eastern works and his Classical approach has led to his works often being considered “academic realism.” 
Jean Léone Gérôme (1824-1904) 
The Snake Charmer, 1870.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
In contrast to Gerome, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres painted harem and other Oriental scenes without ever having visited the Orient. His Odalisque with a Slave (1839) and Grand Odalisque (1814) present slaves, or “odalisques,” in sensual and receptive poses. They are “not acting,” but silently offering themselves. According to Helen Weston,in A Look Back to Ingres, Grand Odalisque, gives the idea “that these female nudes were produced solely for the delectation of men”(115). Odalisque with a Slave, painted for his friend Marcotte, on one of Inres’s favorite subjects is an admirable example of a sensual composition: “the wonderful line which undulates from the elbow of the odalisque, along the arm, and waist to the extremities; the crescent that it makes with the slave’s knees, the contrast given to these curves by the horizontal and vertical lines of the balustrade all contribute to the unforgettable balance, harmony, and grace as a whole” (Underwood 185).

Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique. 
Odalisque and Slave, 1839.
Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. 
The Grand Odalisque, 1814.
Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Grand Odalisque was ordered by the Queen of Naples, Napoleon’s sister. It was shown in a salon in 1819 and amazed the public with “a rattling mix” of the exotic and the erotic. The twisting, curving pose of the painting’s female is the serpentine line, the line of aloof sensuality, anacreontism and gracefulness (115).
Some critics, however, reproached Ingres for the work, saying that, in order to extend the line of the back of the woman, he added an extra neck bone. In addition, some say he made the subject’s right hand so unnaturally extended that it appears that she is missing bones. The woman is shown with her back to the viewer, glancing over her right shoulder with a look of apparent indifference. Some of the details that surround her – the hookah and smoking incense – indicate a harem setting. The parting of the subject’s hair and the Italian headdress that she wears, though, imply that the woman is European, not Oriental. In this way, the painting can be seen as a symbol of the influence of Oriental exoticism on the people of Europe. Clothes, fabrics, ornaments and accessories always accompany the female portraits of Ingres. His skills are shown in his ability to combine the female form with fabrics, furs and feathers. If one looks closer at Grand Odalisque, one notices how, on the naked hip of the woman, a fan of pheasant’s feathers flows downward covering the back of her thigh. The viewer can almost feels its airy softness, and it adds to the picture a bit of eroticism, in addition to emphasizing the languor of the pose in what seems to be a moment of blissful laziness. Another major Orient-inspired work by Ingres also hinted at the supposed exotic sexuality of the Orient. Turkish Bath (1862) depicts many unclothed women in relaxed poses, with the Arabic dance of the naked beauty in the background. The picture immerses the viewer in an atmosphere of voluptuousness and idleness.

Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique.
The Turkish Bath, 1862.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique.
Bather of Valpincon, 1808.
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Cleanliness was an important part of Arabic society. The body was to be washed before each of the five daily prayers, for example, and it was considered essential to take a bath after sexual relations. Even with house baths, many Turks preferred to go to a public bath twice a week. For women, this was an especially significant event, the public bath being the place where they heard the latest gossip and showed each other new clothes. Baths were also the center of entertainment and erotica. When women returned home, they shone with cleanliness and were ready to become objects of love for their husbands. Turkish baths were also used for dating purposes as secret love nests. Like the harem, the public bath titillated Europeans and was a natural subject for Orientalist artists in search of the exotic. Turkish Bath, finished Ingres’ career as a painter, which seems not inappropriate given that some critics say the painting was a “sum” of all of his well-known works. First painted in 1859 as a rectangle, the work was revised to a circular form in 1863, at which time Ingres, who was then almost 80, added the small, out-of -scale figure on the pool and revised the appearance of the central foreground figure who is seen from behind. With some changes in the pose of this woman’s legs and the addition of a guitar, “she is used as a repoussoir figure, but she still retains the essence of her original simplicity and chaste naïveté” (Friedlander 89). The painting gives the viewer a sense of luxury. One can almost hear the sounds of the mandolin and tambourine, smell the Turkish coffee and feel the women’s smooth skin. In addition, it conveys the eroticism that Europeans, rightly or wrongly, so closely associated with the East. Notwithstanding the artistic merits of his works, Ingres’ painting of such scenes without firsthand knowledge of the Orient is a testament to both the widespread fascination with the region and the willingness of Europeans to assume for themselves the power to define it.

Jean Leon Gerome. 
Grecian Interior, Le Gynecee, 1848.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Jean Leon Gerome.
Private collection
Jean Leon Gerome. 
A Bath, Woman Bathing Her Feet (Harem Pool) 1889.
Private collection
Jean Léone Gérôme (1824-1904)
After the Bath, 1870.
Private Collection.
Jean Léone Gérôme (1824-1904) 
Moorish bath, Turkish woman bathing, 1870.
Private Collection.
Jean Léone Gérôme (1824-1904) 
Moorish Bath, 1870.
Private Collection.

Jean Léone Gérôme (1824-1904)
The Steam Bath. (Le Bain de Vapeur.) 1889.
Private Collection.
Jean Léone Gérôme (1824-1904) 
The Pipe Lighter. (Allumeuse de Narghilé), 1898.
Private Collection.
Jean Léone Gérôme (1824-1904) 
Private Collection.
Jean Léone Gérôme (1824-1904) 
The Terrace of the Seraglio, 1898.
Private Collection.

          The Ottoman Empire Map (1359-1856)

Friedlaender, W. (1974). David to Delacroix. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.
Masson, F. (1902). 'J.L. Gérôme. Notes et fragments des souvenirs inédits du maître', Les Arts.
Uderwood, E. G. (1931). A Short History of French Painting. London, Oxford University Press.
Weston, H. (1996). "A Look Back on Ingres." Oxford Art Journal 19(2): 114-116.

Romantic Orientalism Books

Hundreds of Romantic Orientalist texts are published each year in the topic of exotica of the Orient. Here, I hope to detail as many as possible, and in these pages I provide information on including the publisher’s description, selections from the book, and any available book reviews.

Edward W. Said
Publisher: Vintage Books, 1979.

"The theme is the way in which intellectual traditions are created and trans-mitted... Orientalism is the example Mr. Said uses, and by it he means something precise. The scholar who studies the Orient (and specifically the Muslim Orient), the imaginative writer who takes it as his subject, and the institutions which have been concerned with teaching it, settling it, ruling it, all have a certain representation or idea of the Orient defined as being other than the Occident, mysterious, unchanging and ultimately inferior."

Book Review by Janet Malcom, The New Yorker  ---

"Orientalism...remains one of the sturdiest intellectual monuments of our time.... Said's exegeses of the writers who, professing objectivity and sympathy, could not suppress their condescension and dislike or hide their political agendas compel us to examine our own carelessly stereotypical thinking about Arabs and Islam and, by extension, to ask whether any representation of another culture is necessarily compromised."

Book Review by Patrick Seale, The Observer  ---

"A stimulating, elegant yet pugnacious essay which is going to puncture a lot of complacencies. Professor Said is a Palestinian Arab who...uses this privileged vantage point to observe the West observing the Arabs, and he does not like what he finds."

Book Review by Nissim Rejwans, 
Jerusalem Post  --
"An important book...It is bound to usher in a new epoch in the world's attitude to Oriental studies and Oriental scholarship. Never has there been as sustained and as persuasive a case against Orientalism as Said's."

Islam and Romantic Orientalism: Literary Encounters With the Orient
By Mohammed Sharafuddin
Publisher: London: I. B. Tauris (September 15, 1996)
Did European writers and scholars create an image of the Islamic world as a place of tyranny, unreason and immorality destined to be subjected to and exploited by the civilized West? This book takes a fresh look at some of the main literary texts of the Romantic movement explored in Edward Said's classic work. Sharafuddin acknowledges wide areas of truth in Said's thesis, however, he argues that in the work of Southey, Byron, Moore and Landor, who began their careers under the sign of the French Revolution and declared their independence both from political tryanny and from national self-safisfaction, the world of Islam appears not just as an antithesis to the world of European civilization but as an alternative cultural reality with its own values.

The Orient in Western Art.
By Gérard-Georges Lemaire.
Publisher: Könemann, 2001. 
Through its fascinating texts and magnificent color photographs, this volume conveys the entire history of Orientalism in European painting. Individual chapters devoted to important artists including Eugene Delacroix, Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky and extensive articles on special themes such as the image of the harem and the Oriental fantasies of the Impressionists complete the picture.

Orientalism: history, theory, and the arts.
By John M. MacKenzie
Publisher: Manchester Univ Press (July 1995)
The Orientalism debate, inspired by the work of Edward Said, has been a major source of cross-disciplinary controversy. This work offers a re-evaluation of this vast literature of Orientalism by a historian of imperalism, giving it a historical perspective. The discussion tests the notion that the Western arts received genuine inspiration from the East by examining the visual arts, architecture, design, music and theatre. The book argues that Western approaches to the Orient have been much more ambiguous and genuinely interactive than Said allowed.

Istanbul: Memories and the City
By Orhan Pamuk
Publisher: Vintage 2006.
"Part memoir, part cultural history, the vision of his home city that Pamuk presents in this book is occluded by the mists of reminiscence. He tries to make sense of the contested representations of European travellers and Turkish writers, the changing fortunes of Istanbul, and his own place within it." - Alev Adil, The Independent

Romantic Orientalism WebSite

This site has listed 1222 Orientalist artists working in the XIX and upto the beginning of the XX Century:

The Orientalists. 
Written by June Taboroff. Photographs courtesy of National Gallery of Art:

Linda Nochlin and The Imaginary Orient by Ibn Warraq (June 2010):

Colonial and Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

Edward Said’s
Orientalism revisited, by Keith Windschuttle (in this article that orginally appeared in The New Criterion, Windschuttle presents a critique of Said's thesis)  

Orientalism in the arts

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