Part One: Odalisques

The myths surrounding the harem and its female slaves

 focusing on Odalisques

Part One. Introduction

Part One: Odalisques

La Grande Odalisque, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1814, Musée du Louvre

     The term Orientalism was first coined in Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism. According to the author, a long tradition of subtle and persistent Eurocentric and Christian prejudice against Arabo-Islamic people and their culture has flourished since the colonisation of the Arab World and expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the 13th-century. Orientalism is based on the belief of drastic and unreconcilable differences between what will repeatedly be named the West and the East for the purpose of this study, which created a fascination for the Other. Throughout this study, the terms West and Europe, as well as Westerners and Europeans, will be interchangeable and will stand for any person, movement, ideology or view linked to the European continent. As for the East and the Orient, it shall be understood as symbolising North Africa and the countries that constituted the Ottoman Empire. The East can sometimes be defined as covering Asia as well, however, this study focusing primarily on French artists, and France being mostly concerned with the Near East in the early centuries of Orientalism, it is North Africa and the Ottoman Empire that will be considered. The analysis will discuss harems and its female slaves, specifically Odalisques. The word harem comes from the Arabic meaning unlawful, protected, as well as forbidden. The harem was the women and children’s living quarters within a palace, forbidden to men except for eunuchs who guarded the space. Within these quarters, female slaves serving concubines came in significant amount, including Odalisques. An extensive written and artistic mythology and fantasy were created around the harem between the 17th century and present day. This study will thus cover written sources as well as paintings and photographs dating from this period, with a particular focus on the 19th century. This choice was made as the 19th century is considered to be the most prolific for Orientalism, both in terms of depictions and birth of ideologies, thanks in part to the expansion of travel because of technological advances.

The aim of this study is to explore the myth surrounding the harem and its female slaves. The focus on Odalisques has been determined based on the lack of available research on the women behind the popular theme. The exploration of the motif of Odalisques is linked to the overall tradition of the nude in Western art. Indeed, paintings titled Odalisques are nude or semi-nude females, often alone or in the company of slaves, depicted in an Oriental setting, which has been a site for the exercise of male fantasy. It has been argued, notably by Keddie, that throughout the centuries many Westerners have stressed the seclusion and poor conditions of women in the East as a justification for Western rule and tutelage. This series of articles sets out to explore the extent of the phenomenon, through exploring the creation of the myths linked to the harem and its female slaves, the Orientalist shift in the 19th century and the complexity that surrounds Odalisque depictions. We will first focus on historical accounts, travel literature and the first Odalisque painting in part two, then survey two of the most significant male Orientalist artists, Ingres and Delacroix as well as two female Orientalist painters, Browne and Jerichau-Baumann in part three. Ultimately, the study will narrow down to Odalisques, seeking to understand the contradictions of 19th-century depictions, why Odalisques were chosen to represent the Orient and finally, the impact of Odalisque depictions in part four.

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