Monday 20 July 2015


I have a random memory of being very young and an elderly relative telling me seriously that while out in town I should be aware of the dangers of white slavery.  Apparently, you're shopping one moment and the next you wake up in a harem.  Whilst being equally racist and wishful thinking on the part of the relative (who I know had a thing about Omar Sharif), now I am a grown-up I see a lot of that mind-set in a genre of Victorian art. Who's for a bit of Turkish delight...?

After the Raid Edward Hale
The perils of nice white women being enslaved by rambunctious foreigners seems to cover quite a bit of history.  Hale chose to start with Vikings as an excuse for some nudity (why would you need to abduct a clothed slave?) but a great part of Victorian art seemed to concentrate on the classical period...

A Roman Slave Market Jean Leon Gerome
Gerome seems to have made an entire career out of painting nudey women in slave auctions.  All his works sit comfortably within the aesthetic framework of ancient times and the Romans who were literate and therefore perfectly alright.

The Slave Market in Roman Jean Leon Gerome
Sale of a Slave Girl in Rome (1884) Jean Leon Gerome
The last one is particularly disturbing but as everyone looks jolly it's bound to be fine.  After all if you were to buy another human being obviously you'll worry about their teeth. Yikes. Anyway, the slave-girl images of Roman are just a titillating extension from other classical beauties from the likes of Leighton and Alma Tadema.  They chose to barely drape their women in see-through gowns, whereas Gerome dispenses with the pretence of clothing.  Not a lady-garden in sight, mark you, all our Roman slave girls are built like marble statues, possibly because that's what the artist used as a model.  It's all classical therefore not at all sexy and very intellectual.

The Romans invented aqueducts and the Times New Roman font for goodness sake, and there is nothing sexy about either of them.

This however is another matter...

The Turkish Bath (1863) Jean-Auguste Ingres
The myth of the Arabian/Ottoman harem is decidedly sexual.  The Victorians had a real lust (for want of a better word) for the notion of English (or European) women ending up in the exotic harem (complete with pool) of a chap no doubt in roomy trousers and probably a beard. Pornographic novels such as The Lustful Turk, published in 1828 but not widely available until the 1890s, and A Night in a Moorish Harem (1896) throw upstanding (ahem) members (sorry) of the British Isles into the nudey hell of a harem in some unspecified African/Turkish place, replete with floggings, all manner of sexual shenanigans and lots of concubines.  Harems are often packed tighter than battery hens, if Ingres is anything to go by, and there is usually a pool of some description. A bit like Pontins then.

The Harem John Frederick Lewis
What I can gather about harems from art is that there are nice big windows with lots of dark woodwork cut in Moorish patterns, lots of billowing silk throws and pillows and little tables containing fruits and lovely ceramics.  Well, that's what you get in a John Lewis harem. Very nice and it comes with a small deer/antelope. 

The Bitter Draught of Slavery (1885) Ernest Normand
There is definitely a theme of the repression and conversely the nymphomania of lovely European women.  Whilst in The Bitter Draught of Slavery, the new recruit to the harem seems very unhappy and traumatised to find herself in the palace, it doesn't seem to take very long for her to get to this state...

The White Slave (1888) Jean Lecomte du Nouy
All it takes is a comfy cushion, a glass of something alcoholic and some pre-peeled fruit and off come the clothes.  Apparently this is also true of harems.

Odalisque (1858) Henri Pierre Picou
So what's going on? Why did the artists of Empire-conquering elites feel the need to perpetuate this myth? Apart from the occasional abduction of a camp follower from the colonial wars, this is the stuff of fantasy, so what was the point?

The Harem Beauty Adrien Henri Tanoux
Aesthetically speaking, it is an excuse to paint some beautiful patterns, glorious tiles, copper urns, glorious architecture and obviously, wonderfully commercial women.  However offensive the ethos behind the images, the pictures are pleasing to the eye, full of beautiful people and things.  They kindle fantasy; for an audience in rainy, grey London it must have seemed like paradise.

Odalisque Edward Henry Corbould
It could easily be dismissed as part and parcel of Empire, but is it an act of envy or fear? It would be easy to read it as expressions of fear, that the conqueror would fear reprisals be enacted upon the women, that land stolen would be retaken in the bodies of wives and daughters.  This would be especially terrifying if the women were seen to enjoy it.  The majority of the Odalisque/Harem scenes have the European women at total ease in their belly-dancing garb.  Did the elite fear that the 'others' could never be completely conquered as they will always be seductive?

The Favourite Fernand Cormon
It's hard to tell the date of the scenes, so it's difficult to see if the artist was showing a contemporary or a historical scene.  If the harems are historical, then were they being used as proof that colonialism was right as it brought order and underclothes to the all-too-relaxed foreigners.  If the scenes were meant to be contemporary, as the literature seemed to suggest, then possibly they were seen as a reason why the colonies required a firm white hand at the controls.  Left to their own devices in their own lands, foreigners are just a hookah pipe away from orgies, tigers and Turkish delight and that sort of thing will never do.  For some reason.

Odalisque Constantin Font
Was it a comment on the nature of women? The Victorian period had its fair share of female travellers, making the most of expanded ways to travel abroad and be a tourist. Some of them even went alone! The horror.  Add to this the question of female rights and roles and it might have been felt that women needed to be put in their place.  A number of white slavery and harem stories and images can be put down to female foolishness, straying out alone, going where only men should go.  The woman in the harem is a brutal reminder that life in a nice house in England with a nice husband who doesn't really bother you with "conjugal unpleasantness" (or "matters of the trouser" as it is also known) is all you should really dream of.  Step outside that and you will be plunged into a hell of sex, heat, tiled pools and fresh fruit.  I mean, what kind of existence is that?!

Odalisque Ferdinand Roybet
It has to be pointed out that apart from a couple of instances, the women in the harems don't look unhappy.  What did that say about the appetites of women? It could be wondered if the male artists who produced these scenes were judging women whose unbridled sexual appetites were equal to the foreigners.  Take a corset off a woman and she's rolling around on a fur holding a parrot before you know it. This double edged sword of both judgement and fear in the matter of female sexuality and the ability of others to understand and respond to it is ever present in the works of art, but I would suggest that the balance leans towards judgement.  Women's sexuality needs to be controlled or else all manner of things happen including consensual polygamy and suggested lesbianism.  Down with that sort of thing! We can't have women making that sort of (or any) decision for themselves!

The White Slave Trade (1895) Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida
The sad truth of white slavery is all too apparent these days, a reflection of the painting above where young women are shipped to a foreign country with ideas of a better life only to end up in prostitution.  The rose-scented paradise of the harem were a reaction to our exploration of the world, the traditional misunderstanding of other cultures, tinged with prejudice and fear. The sexual enslavement of women were possibly a reaction to the behaviour of Colonial powers, a metaphor to what the western world was doing to others.

Bought for the Harem (1891) Alexander Russov
Either way, despite their beauty, the harem fantasy of nineteenth century art makes uncomfortable viewing: the unspecified Arabian/Moorish/Turkish harem owners are evil enslavers of women with unquenchable sexual appetites and all women once loosened from their corsets become nymphomaniacs. It's interesting to think that the white colonists could conqueror a hearty slice of the world but not their own sexual fears...


  1. I think a lot of excuses/inspiration came from the erotic art of Hindu temples, newly discovered by Europeans. The 'Oriental' literature, eg The Perfumed Garden and Kama Sutra. And didn't this 'fantasy' continue beyond the Victorian age? Think of Rudolph Valentino as the Sheikh, the Desert song etc. The exotic/oriental was very enticing to the drab exitence of the depression era west, and obviously to some extent it appealed to the ladies of the time too. Without it we would have been deprived of Gerome who could certainly paint a beautiful bottom.

  2. How could I forget The Desert Song? I did that as part of a light opera group and had the most lovely dress as a Spanish lady of the night. Ah, happy times!

    Thank you for your comments.

  3. Off topic from your lovely post above: I just wanted to say that, as an Art History student in the U.S., I've probably heard the Pre-Raphealites mentioned once in my four years. This is a sad thing, as I have been in love with them since I was eight, and cannot get enough of their world. Your blog is the magnificent, captivating class I never got to take. Thank you for your terrific writing, stunning art, and fascinating topics; it makes me smile to revisit this wonderful corner of the internet.

  4. Vail, you have made my day. Thank you so much.


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