The Image of Slavery in Orientalist Painting

In art historical terms, Orientalism refers to subject matter portraying the Near East by western artists and reflects closer 19th century European political involvement with the Near East. Essentially a 19th century phenomenon, Orientalism was an aspect of Romanticism that became a standard theme in which artists throughout Europe specialised. A prevalent form was genre painting with numerous harem and slave-market scenes. The Orientalist concern to create erotic idealisation rather than sociological fact had a profound affect on European perceptions of the region because of the belief that the mysterious Near East could “…satisfy the West’s urge for exotic experience.” (Stevens, 1984).

Orientalists portrayed scenes of contemporary ‘Oriental’ slavery that allowed their viewing public to feast their eyes on the barbarity of the slave trade. Slave-market scenes, as essentially harem scenes, and sensualised images of female slaves were seen as highly erotic. The Woman with a Parrot (1827) by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) betrays the romanticised traditional image – the captive woman or a woman owned. As captive woman she represents an object of lust or love with which male voyeurs identify as owners of prize pieces of exotic ‘oriental’ flesh. Similarly purposive is Odalisque as Slave (1819) by Ingres (1780-1867) depicting a female white slave whose sole purpose is to be possessed by her owner, see Figure 1. is The Odalisque by Francisco Masriera y Manovens (1842-1902) which is an example of the sultry portrayal aimed at public consumption.

Image (240)

Figure 1The Odalisque

Prior to 1800 some 3000 to 4000 slaves were imported into Tunis annually, being transported from Nigeria via Timbuktu across the Sahara. The trade to Tripoli was prosperous with hired French, English and Venetian vessels selling extensively to Constantinople, Chios and Smyrna. An annual average of 2000 originating in Fezzan (southern Libya) were sold in the 1790’s with sub-Saharan African slaves also found in Morocco. After 1808 the slave-trade across the southern Sahara to the southern Mediterranean and Egypt continued. Black women were important for the Arab trade across the Sahara. In 1800 some 2000 to 3000 captives were traded which increased to at least 8000 annually by 1820. The trade to North Africa from Lagos included a substantial minority of expensive and sought after eunuchs – favoured as domestic servants in the 19th century Muslim world. Eunuchs were very important for the northern harems. Young blacks were castrated by Egyptian Christians and Jews on their way to the great Mediterranean slave emporiums of Mecca, Medina, Beirut, Smyrna (Izmir), and Constantinople.

About 1800 the East African slave-trade also expanded, and the coming of Mehmet Ali to Egypt stimulated the trade, with imports increasing prior to Napoleon’s invasion. Certain African chiefs, willingly selling their people, were sought by Moslem slave-traders. The majority of captives came from the upper reaches of the Nile – Kordofan, Darfur, Dongola, and near Lake Chad. They were shipped up river to Cairo and Alexandria or overland from Sennar and Darfur in the Sudan. Abyssinian – Ethiopian – women were forcibly seized, passed across the desert, and up the Nile where they were confined in great Cairene Okels or caravanserais. Other Abyssinians were transported to Red Sea ports. Some 750,000 slaves were taken into the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan during the 19th century, many between 1850 and 1900. Ottoman trade in this period comprised 11,000 annually. In 1890 some 90,000 black Africans were said to live as full-time slaves to Arab masters. Vigorous campaigns, often Christian-led, were conducted against the slave trade. The Tunis slave-market was closed when the Ottoman Sultan prohibited the white slave-trade – mainly Circassian women – in 1854-55, and the black slave-trade in 1857. Nonetheless the trade still persisted into the 20th century.

Women in large Osmanli (Ottoman) harems were of slave origins and the concubines within were mainly Georgians, Circassians and Armenians. All women in Orientalist slave-market paintings are shown naked, especially Circassians. In scene after scene slave-market proceedings supposedly brought to life, with vivid images, the so-called ‘timeless cruelty of the East’ as in Bondage (1895) by Ernest Normand (1859-1923). Conditions however were a sickening sight with slaves appearing dejected, abject and humiliated. These markets presented Orientalist painters with opportunities to paint nude women which also fitted with the Western view of women as defenceless and submissive creatures. Other example of the genre include Slave Market in Constantinople by the Scottish historical painter Sir William Allen (1782-1850), Evening Slaves (1890) by the Italian Ettore Cercone, the Purchasing a Slave, Constantinople by the Pole Stanislas von Chlebowski, and Inspecting the New Arrivals by Giulio Rosati. These show stylised naked white women slaves probably of Circassian or Georgian origin.

Many Circassian slaves entered the harems of wealthy Turks in Egypt and slender wasted Georgian women with their shapely long legs, beautiful eyes and hair, were considered proverbial beauties with high value. A famous example of this ideal concubine is The White Slave (1888) by the Frenchman Jean Lecomte du Nouy. After 1864 the heroic resistance of the Circassian tribes of the Caucasus to Russian domination led to migration en masse into Turkey. Thereafter Circassian slave-dealers moved their trade closer to Constantinople, Rumelia (Ottoman Thrace and Macedonia, now in Bulgaria), and Brusa (now Bursa in north-west Turkey). Circassian women were bought and sold on after training. We can now discuss in more detail The Slave Market by Gerome, see Figure 2.


Figure 2.  Slave Market (undated).

Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904).

The French artist Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) was the doyen of Orientalist painters who is said to have “…thrilled his throngs of followers with scene upon scene of harem doings and merchandising of women.” (Dijkstra, 1986). Gerome travelled to Turkey Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Sinai, and North Africa. In The Slave Market he utilises a surface narrative to put a woman in a place where the picture’s spectators can fantasise about the nefarious pleasures of buying and selling women. The dealers surrounding the white slave woman engage in horse-fair rituals of checking teeth whilst exposing her nakedness to all and sundry. Again, female nudity is legitimised by the trappings of the orient. Such Orientalist scenes of female slave-markets were made deliberately delectable. Such pictures combine a mixture of feelings of mastery on behalf of the spectator with pleasure derived from a sense of predetermined and unavoidable suffering on the part of the victim. The spectator is comforted by the awareness that they bear no responsibility for the miserable scene. They become voyeurs, or flaneurs. In such a manner Orientalist paintings made the spectacle of degrading female slavery acceptable and palatable to art lovers and critics of the fin de siècle.

Gerome was fascinated by Turkish baths or Hammams and his works serve to illustrate the position of black women slaves in the harems and baths. Gerome’s paintings can be interpreted as visual counterparts of descriptions of bath scenes by Lady Montagu and Julia Pardoe where revealed “…through a mist of steam, his women are always perfect and otherworldly.” (Croutier, 1989). In his The Moorish Bath (1870), see Figure 3, which really represents an Egyptian scene, a Sudanese  slave is shown tending a white slave or female concubine.


Figure 3The Moorish Bath (1870).

Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904). Oil on canvas.

Sociologically the scene suggests  that black female slaves were considered inferior to white – a colour caste system appears as part of the social fabric determining relationships between white and black slaves. However, these western paintings may not necessarily be a reflection of reality. A similar composition, see Figure 4, is seen in Gerome’s The Bath (1880-1885).


Figure 4The Bath (1880-1885).

Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904). Oil on canvas

In both paintings the iconography is derived from the 18th century where a partially nude, or nude, but fair skinned woman is attended by a darker skinned serving women. Such images were accepted as normal during the 19th century. The compositional convention is repeated in After the Bath by Paul-Louis Bouchard, see Figure 5, where the suggested superior relationship of the white woman is accentuated by the height of her black servant or slave by the high bath sandals.


Figure 5After the Bath (undated).

Paul-Louis Bouchard. Oil on canvas.

Similar black slave motifs are seen in Massage, Hammam Scene (1883) by Edouard Debat-Ponsan, and The Moorish Bath by Jules Migonney. All scenes combine classical white beauty within an exotic setting where a white nude woman is juxtaposed against a black, and often beautiful herself, semi-nude woman. Black women are always shown clothed or semi-nude from the waist up. Orientalist painters never painted black odalisques (a female slave or concubine, especially in Turkey) even though many black women became concubines of well-to-do Egyptians. However, two black node women form the subject of Moonlight at Laghouat (1897) by AlphonseEtiennen Dinet, see Figure 6.


Figure 6.  Moonlight at Laghouet (1897).

Alphonse-Etienne Dinet (1861-1929). Oil on canvas.

It is interesting because Laghouat was a stopping place on the Saharan slave route to North Africa. Black female slaves were portrayed in harem scenes, always in inferior roles to white slave concubines, tending as nurses to babies and children, and bathers see Figure 7.


Figure 7.  Bather in the Palm Grove.

Further examples of this genre are The First Steps (1878), see Figure 8, by the anti-colonialist American Frederick Arthur Bridgeman, A New Light in the Harem by Frederick Goodall, and Keeping the Marabou Amused by Frederick Roybet.


Figure 8.  The First Steps (1878).

Female slavery as a subject kept its fascination for artists and public until the early 20th century. The inherited Romantic theme was enthusiastically explored by artists throughout the 19th century, their scenes giving audiences lessons in ways the ‘Orient’ supposedly dealt with women. Black and white Near Eastern slaves were seen as exotic and hedonistic with gender relations that “…echoed in reality those ideals of male control and female passivity which the nineteenth century held so dear.” (Mullins, 1985). Orientalists portrayed captive women at the disposal of men, either as objects or commodities, and their works enjoyed popular response. They encouraged the male spectator to become a voyeur because female slave scenes became a convenient vehicle for showing titillating nudes. Orientalists transformed nude slave women  black and white, into erotic visions within exotic Near Eastern milieu. The harem ideal shown as a corral of captive women validated portrayal of the nude.

Juxtaposition of black and white women as a pictorial device, alluded to a marriage between ideas of eternal Western beauty with concepts of the Eastern exotic where both black and white could be equally erotic. Indeed the comparison inspired unwarranted and mythical colour related ideas of sexuality. It was an attempt to integrate Western principles with Eastern motifs, that relied heavily on imagination and perpetuation of myths, not only to penetrate the sector and unobtainable but also to justify European male dominance at home. In essence many Orientalist slave paintings, rooted in contemporary European colonial ambitions, are not only misogynistic but also ideologically racist.

March 30th, 2000.

References and Sources

Chadwick W.  (1996).  Women, Art, and Society.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Chilvers, I. & Osborne, H.  (1997).  The Oxford Dictionary of Art.  OUP, Oxford.

Croutier, A. L.  (1989).  Harem: The World Beyond the Veil.  Bloomsbury, London.

Dijkstra, B.  (1986).  Idols of Perversity.  Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-siècle Culture.  OUP, New York and London.

Lucie-Smith, E.  (1996). Dictionary of Art Terms.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Mullins, E.  (1985).  The Painted Witch. Female Body: Male Art.  Secker & Warburg, London.

Read, H.  (1994).  Dictionary of Art and Artists.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Stevens,M. A.  (1984). The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse. Royal Academy of Art, London.

Thomas, M. A.  (!997).  The Slave Trade.  Picador, London.

Thornton, L.  (1994 a).  The Orientalists: Painter Travellers.  PocheColeur, ACR, Paris.

Thornton, L.  (1994 b).  Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting.  PocheColeur, ACR, Paris.


1 Comment

Filed under History Of Art

One response to “The Image of Slavery in Orientalist Painting

Discussion & Comment Welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s