Orientalism: the fantasy

Gaston Bussière (1862–1928), The Dance of the Seven Veils (1925), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Woman is one of the oldest themes in art – at least most art made by men. Although social attitudes in pre-Christian Europe often revelled in the open expression of eroticism in art, Christianisation suppressed that in most forms. Virtuous art, which could be praised and funded by the Church, was religious in nature, and the depiction of nude women was sacrilegious.

However paradoxical these may appear now, there were some exceptions, some of the time at least. One which became fairly generally-accepted was in the course of depicting stories and scenes from the classical myths of Greece and Rome. The fact that these also included pagan religious content seems to have been accepted, even when they convolved both pre-Christian and Christian beliefs, as in Botticelli’s Primavera (c 1470).

Unsurprisingly, patterns of patronage show that paintings of nude women were favourites with rich and powerful men, who were also influential in determining the system of aesthetics and conventions which permitted their production. As their tastes drifted away from classical myth during the eighteenth century, artists found new themes in which they could cater for the desires of their patrons. Among these was that of the ‘Orient’.

At the time, the ‘Orient’ meant anywhere east of Greece, and the most acccessible and largely non-Christian country to feature in early ‘Orientalist’ painting is Turkey. Accessibility was important to give access to local architectural styles and scenic features, to encourage invariably wildly inaccurate popular speculation about local cultural norms, and (as with the Greeks and Romans before) it was important that local people were seen as non-Christian, therefore ‘barbarian’ in the same way that barbarians had been to the classical civilisations.

François Boucher (1703–1770), The Odalisque (1753), oil on canvas, 53 x 64 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

An early and persistent myth was that of the ‘harem’ and its women, which was particularly fertile to the imagination and the image-maker. François Boucher’s The Odalisque (1753) is an early foray into the motif which hints at a Turkish setting but keeps its focus on the woman’s buttocks.

Boucher, and many other artists, wilfully confounded roles among those in the household of the rich and powerful of the day. In their original usage, the harem or seraglio (the Italian word serraglio originally referring to a cage) consisted of concubines and their maidservants, with only the latter being referred to as odalisques (from the Turkish word ōdalık, literally chambermaid).

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), The Grand Odalisque (1814), oil on canvas, 91 x 162 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Dennis G. Jarvis, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1814, when Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres completed The Grand Odalisque for Napoleon’s sister, Queen Caroline Murat of Naples, he effectively turned Titian’s Venus away and added props to imply its setting in a seraglio – as well as employing some fantasy anatomy.

Horace Vernet (1789–1863), Slave Market (1836), oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Horace Vernet, grandson of the great landscape artist Claude Joseph Vernet, developed other aspects of the theme in his 1836 painting of a Slave Market: these odalisques were traded as slaves in markets, and the central man is clearly not Turkish, but of African origin.

There grew an urban myth that European women, sometimes those who were brave enough to attempt to travel in the ‘Orient’, or those who came ashore from wrecked ships, were captured by ‘Orientals’ and sold in slave markets, ending up as odalisques in harems. Lacking a clear conception of the geography even of the Mediterranean area, such stories were increasingly set in North Africa, which became part of this fantasy ‘Orient’.

Horace Vernet had specialised in painting battle scenes, including several set in Algeria, which have been accepted as being of high accuracy. He is alleged to have declared that he was “a painter of history” and would “not violate the truth”. How much truth there was behind this painting is more open to question.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Odalisque (1857), oil on panel, 35.5 x 30.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Orientalist paintings of harems and slave markets had become all the rage. Although Eugène Delacroix generally avoided such excesses, even he had a small foray into the theme in 1857, in his Odalisque.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Buying a Slave (1857), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Popular detailed realist painters brought these fantasies to life. This is one of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s earlier visions of Buying a Slave, from 1857. The prospective purchaser is inspecting her teeth in much the same way he would if assessing a horse, and her body is fully exposed for the viewer’s pleasure.

Marià Fortuny (1838–1874), The Odalisque (1861), oil on cardboard, 56.9 x 81 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Marià Fortuny painted several different versions of The Odalisque, this from 1861, each richly decorated with objects such as the hukah (or hookah) to build the ‘Oriental’ atmosphere. Fortuny himself had travelled in Morocco from 1859 onwards, and became obsessed with Orientalist motifs.

Then in 1865, Édouard Manet exhibited his Olympia at the Paris Salon, causing a furore because of its interpretation not as another odalisque (which would probably have been most acceptable), but as a French prostitute.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), The Turkish Bath (1862), oil on canvas, 108 x 110 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Ingres developed another Orientalist motif with his 1862 painting of The Turkish Bath. If a single odalisque was good, then surely a few dozen would be even better. Many of the figures shown here appear to be of very non-‘Oriental’ origin, playing once again on the story of enslaved European women.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Slave Market (c 1866), oil on canvas, 84.8 × 63.5 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Gérôme revisited The Slave Market in about 1866, this time with its men more obviously ‘Arabs’.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) The Great Bath of Bursa (1885), oil on canvas, 70 x 100.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

He also set his nudes in some grandiose surroundings, such as in The Great Bath of Bursa (1885). This is set in the large city in north-western Turkey, which for a period in the fourteenth century was the country’s capital.

This painting was exhibited at the Salon in 1885, and from there its history is illustrative of those who drove the market in Orientalist art. It was purchased from Gérôme later that year by the dealer Goupil, who quickly sold it to Tsar Alexander Alexandrovich III. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, it was put on display in the Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg. It was sold during the Second World War to a New York dealer, and seems to have gone into private ownership, ending up on the wall of the Chief Judge of the Indiana Court of Appeals, in the USA.

In the late nineteenth century, these long-running Orientalist fantasies conflated a new thread: the exotic and erotic dancer. This flourished with stories such as that of Salome, also seen as being within this expansive ‘Orient’. Gustave Moreau’s paintings of Salome from 1875 developed this, and it was taken up by Oscar Wilde in his play of the same name in 1891, and amplified in end-of-century decadence.

Gaston Bussière (1862–1928), The Dance of the Seven Veils (1925), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Wilde’s infamous Dance of the Seven Veils was passed on in Richard Strauss’s opera of 1905, and the following year shocked in Maud Allan’s burlesque dance show. This transferred so easily into paintings such as Gaston Bussière’s The Dance of the Seven Veils from 1925.

By then there was a fantasy zone extending from the Atlantic shores of Morocco in the west to the eastern borders of modern Iran, populated by libidinous non-Christians who adbucted nice, Western women into sexual slavery in their harems and brothels. To some extent, I’m afraid that fiction lives on today in the minds of many in Europe and the US. In the next article, I will look at paintings which aim to give a more accurate account, particularly of one group, the Ouled Naïl.


Gérard-Georges Lemaire (2000, 2008) The Orient in Western Art, HF Ullmann. ISBN 978 3 8331 3578 1.