Part Three: Odalisques

The myths surrounding the harem and its female slaves
focusing on Odalisques

Part Three. The 19th-century shift.

In 19th-century Europe, it has been argued by Foucault that a new intuitional motivation to speak about sex emerged. Simultaneously, in its depictions the West began to represent masculinity for it was seen as rational, civilised, energetic and in progress while the East came to represent feminity – irrational, backward, passive and in decline. This phenomenon can be explored through the treatment of the Oriental female nude by Western artists. Throughout the century, a collective style of harem paintings emerged in Orientalists artists, focused primarily on representing harem accoutrements such as pipes, animals, flowers and jewellery. More importantly, as DelPlato identified, harem scenes were often composed of one woman only, to avoid diluting the erotic intimacy of the scene. Kabbani argues that the accoutrements are as vital to the painting as the female nude. This part will discuss, inter alia, this décor and accessories and their importance to Orientalism, and consider them as having been used as assurance of the authenticity of the scene before the viewer. This collective style of harem paintings in the 19th-century will be examined through the works of two Western male artists, Ingres and Delacroix, as well as two Western female artists, Browne and Jerichau-Baumann.

A. Western male artists: Ingres and Delacroix

Boer argues that Ingres has forged an Oriental fantasy into a personal tradition. Nevertheless, Ingres lacked direct knowledge about the Orient, having never travelled further than Italy. This fact was known to his contemporaries, as demonstrated by Marquis de Custine’s letter dated December 10th, 1840, in which he states that ‘the painter has depicted his dream, he has painted neither that which he has seen nor seen that which he thought’. On the contrary, Delacroix travelled to North Africa in 1932 and was even admitted into a Muslim household in June of that year. Yet, as displayed through reading a journal entry dated December 23rd, 1860, 28 years after his trip to Morocco, Delacroix still thought of the Orient in terms of the One Thousand and One Nights discourse. It can be argued that the lack of travelling on Ingres’ part and the reveal that Delacroix appeared to have been holding on to a fantasied Orient, indicates the desire of the painters to understand the Orient and its women as an imaginary space whether than a real one. It is then relevant to assess the extent to which Delacroix and Ingres’ Odalisques paintings were meant to represent the Orient.

1. What was the provenance of the models?

For both painters, there have been discussions regarding the inspirations behind the female nudes and the provenance of the models. In a letter, Ingres stated that the model for La Grande Odalisque (Fig.2) was in Rome.

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 2. La Grande Odalisque, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1814, Musée du Louvre

Similarly, L’Odalisque à l’Esclave (Fig.3) was painted in Rome with European models.

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 3. L’Odalisque à l’esclave, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1839, Walters Art Museum

Wildenstein has suggested that it is the same women depicted in Ingres’ Orientalist paintings and classical depictions, declaring that his virgins could be the sisters of his Odalisques. As for Delacroix, his interest in photography is well-documented. In the early 1850s, he became friends with amateur photographer Durieu. Delacroix visited his studio and acquired an album of 115 photographs containing several studies of female models. . Odalisque (1857) (Fig.4) was proven to have been based on a nude Durieu photographed in 1850.

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 4. A comparison between a female nude photographed by Eugène Durieu and Odalisque, Eugène Delacroix, 1857

It can, therefore, be argued that, when supposedly representing Oriental women, Ingres and Delacroix actually depicted European women in what they considered to be an Oriental setting.

2. What is meant by an Oriental setting?

Knowing that Ingres and Delacroix based their Oriental female nudes on European women depicted in a stereotypically Oriental setting raises the question of what constitutes an Oriental setting in Orientalist paintings of the 19th-century. As previously mentioned, L’Odalisque à l’Esclave (1839) was painted in Rome with European models. It is indicated by Benjamin that Turkish props were used to render the painting Oriental. These props are elements considered to be trademarks of the Orient: a hookah, a fan, a luth and the clothes of the musicians as well as those of the black servant. The hookah is assumed to be the master’s, and the standing servant is waiting for a signal of his arrival. Men were usually associated with a specific type of hookah, the chibouk, whose pipe can measure up to four feet and served as a phallic symbol. In harem paintings, when a woman is represented with a hookah, the man is absent. Mullins argues that in Le Bain Turc (1862) (Fig.5), the only purpose of the women depicted is to wait to be of service to a man.

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 5. Le Bain Turc, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1862, Musée du Louvre

Applying this theory to L’Odalisque à l’Esclave, the hookah can be seen to be a reminder of the upcoming sexual relationship between the nude and the master. The presence of the hookah and the other props in L’Odalisque à l’Esclave helps situate the painting in the Orient and the woman as a sex slave without having to depict the master himself. The absence of the master can be said to reflect the efforts of Western men to penetrate the spaces inhabited by women in the Orient and envision themselves within them, as the sole masculine presence. Indeed, the servant is a eunuch. He is thus emasculated and can be thought of as opposing no threats to the fantasy of domination of the female nude by the viewer. The elements used to create an Oriental setting were effective thanks to what Barthes has described as the reality-effect. He argues that an abundance of seemingly pointless details has been traditionally used in Occidental literature when the author desires for his work to seem real, almost naturalistic as Barthes describes it. It is through their insignificance and amount that the details allow the oeuvre to obtain an illusion of accuracy. In reality, the details presented as facts, serve an imperialist ideology. As mentioned previously, Ingres’ contemporaries were aware that he had not travelled to the East. Yet, through the reality-effect and what DelPlato calls aesthetic positivism, the images are presented as having a referent in reality which causes the presumption that they unquestionably replicated truth. It can be argued that both of these effects have had the consequence of according credit to a work of art and anchoring it in reality. Thus, Ingres and Delacroix’s conception of an Oriental setting had most likely been influenced by works that originated prior to their time, paintings or writings, in which the details went unquestioned. Moreover, both painters, in their turn, influenced those who came after them. The reality-effect and the concept of aesthetic positivism can thus be said to have had a powerful impact on the shaping of Oriental settings.

3. How much were the artists inspired by Western painting traditions?

Ingres and Delacroix seem to have wanted to create a fantasied environment for their female nudes. For their paintings, the setting was not only taken from Orientalist literature and depictions but seems to have been taken from Western tradition as well. Dormeuse (1809) (Fig.6) has been cited as an influence for L’Odalisque à l’Esclave, thus creating a cross-reference between Bathers and Odalisques.

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 6. Dormeuse, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1809. The painting was lost in 1815 in Naples following the pillage of the Royal Palace. This is a photograph of a study for the painting.

Additionally, the motif of reclining nudes with a musician was a subject beloved by Venetian painters of the Renaissance, for example, Titian’s Venus and Musician (1550) (Fig.7).

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 7. Venus and Musician, Titian, c.1550, Museo del Prado

It can also be argued that La Grande Odalisque (1814), with its turbaned head seen in three-quarter profile and surveying the viewer, also derives from Renaissance influences, for example, Raphael’s Madonna della seggiola (1513) (Fig.8).

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 8. Madonna della seggiola, Raphael, 1513-1514, Palazzo Pitti

Finally, Le Bain Turc’s Tondo format recalls central Italian religious pictures of the Renaissance, such as Michelangelo’s Donni Madonna (c.1507) (Fig.9).

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 9. Doni Madonna, Michelangelo, c.1507, Uffizi

Through his Odalisque paintings, Ingres appears to be referring to a Western historical precedent. Delacroix seems to have been inspired by Western traditions as well. Turkish women bathing (1854) (Fig.10) recalls Rococo bather scenes such as Pater’s Bathers (1730) (Fig.11).

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 10. Turkish women bathing, Eugène Delacroix, 1854, Wadsworth Atheneum

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 11. Bathers, Jean-Baptiste Pater, 1730, Hermitage Museum

Similarly, Femme caressant un perroquet (1827) (Fig.12), can be said to be an idealised version of the traditional image of the woman-owned, and, according to Mullins, could be a painted version of a Byron sonnet.

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 12. Femme caressant un perroquet, Eugène Delacroix, 1827, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

It can thus be said that both artists were inspired by Western painting traditions in their Orientalist work. It can be argued that Ingres and Delacroix have treated the Orient and its depiction the same way Western artists traditionally have for mythological and religious works. The female nude seems to be a motif that can be displaced in time and location while remaining the focal point of a painting. In part four, the ethical and moral pressures from the 19th-century West will be discussed to further the argument regarding these Western and Eastern cross-references.

4. What signs are revealing of Western modes of thinking?

Following the establishment of a deeply rooted inspiration of Western painting traditions, it is important to reflect on the aspects of Ingres and Delacroix’s paintings that are revealing of the influence of Western modes of thinking applied onto Odalisque paintings. The tradition of depicting black servants, male or female, with white female nudes, seems to result from the European race hierarchy of the 19th-century and correspond to Western expectations about race and status. This hierarchy can be observed in L’Odalisque à l’Esclave. Indeed, the highest-ranked and most privileged slave is the lightest-skinned. The figures of the musician and the servant, both darker than her, stand as a way to enhance the beauty of the white mistress and highlight her perfection in Western eyes. The idea of what beauty is according to Westerners can be linked to the concept of voyeurism. The act of voyeurism is, according to Leeks, crucial for male pleasure in viewing images of the female nude. In Le Bain Turc, the women are oblivious to the presence of an external audience, the musician even having her back turned to the viewer. The painting not only suggests eroticism but also emphasises voyeurism as the viewer sees without being seen, the Tondo format having been associated with the shape of the keyhole. For Lacan, in a picture, something of the gaze is always manifested. Through paintings that make of the viewer a voyeur, Ingres and Delacroix seem to manifest the creation of pleasure through dominance. Leeks argues that in the voyeuristic culture, pleasure can only be achieved by objectification, asserting control by dominance and ultimately punishing or saving. In part four, the notion of sexual gratification through saving will be further discussed.

Through studying Ingres and Delacroix’s Odalisque paintings, it can be argued that they display the constant and implicit presence of the white Western man in Orientalist paintings. Through a fantasised and westernised representation of both the female nude and the Orient setting, the paintings seem to demonstrate how the controlling gaze which brings the Oriental world into being and for which it is intended, is the Western male gaze.

B. Western female artists: Browne and Jerichau-Baumann

The treatment of female nudes by Western male artists inevitably brings the question of Western female artists’ treatment of the same subject matter. It is important to note that little information can be found about these artists as there is a lack of books, articles and overall academic writings about their oeuvre and life. Thus, this part will heavily rely on the work of two art historians; Lewis and Kuehn. So far, Odalisque paintings discussed have seemed to fulfil the Western male desire to see, as Lewis argues, the forbidden faces and bodies of Muslim women. It is relevant to question whether the voyeuristic and fantasied glance this study has established is present in Ingres and Delacroix’s paintings, is also prevalent in Browne and Jerichau-Baumann’s, two artists who have travelled to the Orient and have been invited into harems.

1. To what extent did Browne challenge harem depictions?

Browne’s A Visit (1860) (Fig.13) displays an interior rarely depicted in Orientalist paintings. Indeed, the social space she portrays offers an alternative reading of relations of power and society in the harem and resembles some testimonies discussed in part two such as Lady Montagu’s and Poole’s.

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 13. A Visit, Henriette Browne, 1860. Privately owned.

Lewis describes Browne’s image of the harem as contradicting the two most common themes of the Orientalist fantasy harem; sex and idleness. The painter does so notably by incorporating a child into the painting and thus combining motherhood with the concept of harems, where children who are not slaves are usually absent. It can be argued that by making the women mothers and socialites, Browne grounds them in a reality that the depictions of reclining female nudes in isolation seem to deny to Muslim women. In such regards, Browne demonstrates a more accurate depiction of harems, were décor and accessories are obsolete, and where women activities are not reduced to waiting for their master. However, Kuehn argues that ultimately, Browne’s paintings were acceptable to the Western audience because they provided documentary evidence of visited harems without crossing the West-East divide, by purposely avoiding to suggests the painter has participated to harem life and without inviting the viewer to participate. Browne can be said to do so by keeping the viewer at a distance from the image she is depicting. Furthermore, in A Visit, the gaze of some women is elsewhere, beyond the frame. It has been argued that this plays into the idea of mystery which remains one of the central themes of Orientalist paintings. Therefore, even though Browne can be said to have depicted the harem as she saw it, thus challenging the Western stereotypes, she did maintain a distance that helped settle the West as the observer and subject and the East as the observed and object. It can also be argued that the artist maintained the idea of mystery in order to appeal to her audience.

2. What does Jerichau-Baumann’s Orientalism reveal?

As for Jerichau-Baumann’s work on Oriental paintings, it does not pretend to challenge stereotypes and depict reality. It does, however, serves as an insight into the Orientalist market. Pottery Seller Near Gizeh (1878) (Fig.14) depicts an Egyptian woman on a floating boat on the Nile.

Part Three: Odalisques

Figure 14. Pottery Seller Near Gizeh, Elizabeth Jerichau-Baumann, 1878, Statens Museum for Kunst

Interestingly, on the back of the painting, it is written that it was exhibited in Milan’s Esposizione Nazionale Di Belle Arti in 1881 under the title La Favorita del Sultano Abdul Aziz. The Sultan Abdul Aziz died in 1876 but was in power when Jerichau-Baumann first visited Constantinople. This fact demonstrates the lack of historical accuracy desired by viewers and buyers and the interest that existed in paintings of favourites and harems. The artist most likely was cognizant of what she had seen in Eastern harems, but more importantly, she was aware of what her Western audience and buyers desired to see. Oriental paintings could not be thought of without a potential receiver. Kuehn thus argues that Jerichau-Baumann deliberately changed the title of her painting so it would appear more interesting to a 19th-century Western audience. Above the idea of Western fantasies of the Orient, it is the financial attraction that drew Orientalist painters to the genre. Historical accuracy was able to be secondary thanks to a lack of knowledge and interest, which Jerichau-Baumann can be said to have taken to advantage of in order to profit financially. Ultimately, it can be argued that the painter’s Orientalism reveals that for painters, depicting harems or feigning to do so, had a financial benefit. For viewers and buyers, it seems that whether the depictions were grounded in reality or not mattered little and eroticism was key.

Through the examples of Browne and Jerichau-Baumann, it can be argued that Western women Orientalist painters followed, to an extent, the stereotypes and trends set by their male counterparts. Browne can be said to have challenged preconceived notions while retaining some for conventional purposes. Jerichau-Baumann can be said to have conformed to the collective style in order to sustain herself. It thus becomes apparent that gender was not what differentiated depictions of Odalisques. It appears that modes of thinking and depicting were dependent on institutionalised imperialism and colonialism. 

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