Guest blog by: Jiman Mosa
Orientalism as a discipline became notable after Edward Said’s critically and historically relevant book entitled Orientalism (1978). For Said, “orientalism in Western literature [was] a mode of thought for defining, classifying and expressing the presumed cultural inferiority of the Islamic orient”.1 In the context of the Visual Arts in the nineteenth century, orientalist paintings projected fantasies of eroticism and violence on to the oriental “other”. Orientalism was, as Said observes an academic endeavour that reflected imperial interests. He argued that imperial motives were causative in every aspect of orientalist epistemology and that the empirical dimensions of orientalist writing and visual representations are therefore flawed. Although Said’s focus was orientalist literature, his mode of representation is still applicable to the art history discourse. The orientalist mode is often attributed to French painters, the most notable of them being Jean-Leon Gerome and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The Italians, however, were part of the growing movement as well in the nineteenth century. Two of the most renowned were Venetians Fausto Zonaro and Ippolito Caffi. This paper will examine the differential mode of representation of Middle-Eastern women by these artists and whether it contributed to the style of representation by these two different cultures/countries in which they represented
Italian culture has always had periods marked by special interest in the Islamic World, which was most demonstrated in the Renaissance. Venice was then the gateway to the Near East and produced great diplomats to the Ottoman Empire. “In 1479 Venice dispatched one of her best known artists, Gentile Bellini, to the court of Mehmet the Conqueror in Istanbul as a diplomatic favour”2 Although Bellini was most famous for his depiction of the Sultan, his representation of Muslim men and women in his paintings paved way for future Venetian diplomats and other artists. In his painting The Preaching of St. Mark in Alexandria, Egypt (1504-07) his representation of the Muslim women suggest a calm yet meek nature about them, though nothing further than that. The women, who are all sitting on the ground as a group (with the exception of two) in their long white veils, suggests a somewhat state of dependence and submissiveness, voiceless in the crowds of turbaned men that freely talk amongst themselves. It is interesting, however, to note that Bellini painted Venetian women in a similar manner, many of whom were painted almost always in groups. For instance, in his painting The Miracle at the San Lorenzo Bridge (1500), the women are all mostly grouped and the repetition of the same ‘faceless’ woman. This woman is found also in his depiction of the veiled faceless Middle-Eastern women in The Preaching of St. Mark in Alexandria, Egypt. By the nineteenth century, when Orientalism was at its highest peak, many Venetians continued to paint in this style.
Fausto Zonaro, a defined orientalist, was born in 1854 in Masi, a village near Padua. Zonaro adopted the Bohemian artist life until 1891. He then moved to Istanbul from Venice where he would make regular trips back and forth. It was during this time that Zonaro’s most famous works emerged. His talent soon reached the Sultan and he was offered the position of Ottoman court painter, of which he was the last to the Ottoman Empire. “Zonaro learnt Turkish, wore the fez and attended the Selamlðk. He was one of the last of that illustrious band of court painters which included Titian, Rubens and David”3 Like Bellini, Zonaro painted Middle Eastern women in a calm and reserved stance. In his painting A Street in Istanbul (c.1900), the Turkish women are painted in a rather gestural style to not only suggest their absorption of their everyday duties but it also depicts them with somewhat of a character because their faces are unveiled. Yet the women, however, are neither objectified nor independent in the painting.
The popularity of Zonaro …confirms the durability of the Ottoman dynasty’s love affair with Western painting, which had begun with Gentile Bellini’s visit to Istanbul in 1479: indeed, one of Zonaro’s commissions was to copy Bellini’s 1480 portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror.4
It is important to note, however that Zonaro held a court position and thereby may not have had the freedom to paint women in harems or in a sexualized manner as many other orientalists did during his time.
Ippolito Caffi, was another Italian orientalist that visited and lived among Middle-Eastern people. Born in Belluno in 1809, Caffi moved to Venice where he studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1843, he left Italy for the Near and Middle East to explore new artistic horizons. Caffi was “among the greatest and most original vedutisti of 19th-century Italy”.5 In many respects he acted as an independent journalist, recording his experience of his travels in paint. In his painting The Slave’s Bazaar, Constantinople (c. 1900), Caffi paints the women, who are slaves, voiceless and displaced. Again, not to the extent that the representation suggests the eroticism of these women or violence from their masters, but it does, however; certainly suggest objectification as is noted in the title of the painting.
From the Orientalist perspective it was almost always the Eastern female eroticized by the Western male. The fascination of seraglios, or better known as ‘harems’, were in many ways ‘harems of the mind’ as Ruth Bernard Yeazell explains in her book Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature. Yeazell claims that there was no such thing as the ‘harem’, that is to say the way the Orientalists imagined it to be, but rather mental tantalization about these rooms from the rather vague descriptions that were given in travel logs. Many male Orientalist painters could not enter the harems as Yeazell explains, so they were left to imagine their own desirable details and aesthetics of such rooms.
What is most interesting about this notion is that many French Oriental painters never travelled to the Near East but relied on accounts made in travel logs and women who visited Turkish homes and encountered Eastern women. One of these notable women was Lady Mary Wortley Montague who wrote letters about the harems in the eighteenth century. Many travellers would later cite her letters when they visited in the nineteenth century when the Near East became a tourist attraction after Napoleon’s army occupied Egypt. Although evidence shows otherwise, for “Western men the harem very quickly emerged as a sexualized space in which the husband (usually coded as the sultan) has sexual access to limitless women in conditions of absolute despotic power”.6 Orientalist literatures during the nineteenth century was by far a contribution to that rendering. This is arguably how the emergence of the orientalist’s ‘harem’ began during this century. Although artists were free to roam around the Orient lands and portray what they saw, many soon found limitations in this practice. The private quarters of Muslim women soon became a fantasy, which then became an obsession for many male artists during this era.
Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt is arguably the defining point of the Western perception of the Orient. The arts in many ways helped to define this perception. Orientalists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Jean-Leon Gerome demonstrate Said’s theory of the Western skewed representation of the ‘other’, in particular the exotic woman of the Orient lands. Their portrayal of the Orient, as many scholars have concluded, defines the “Islamic other as culturally inferior and backward”7 The perceptions of the ‘other’ from the view of these artists is especially important because both were well known during their time and their artwork worked as a visionary storytelling tool similar to Lord Bryon’s literature.
It is often difficult to ascertain whether a particular portrait was done during the artist’s travels or in his home country, for even eye-witnesses do not always record reality. Their cultural backgrounds and, perhaps their prejudices, as well as the current taste and style in art, could all deform the vision of European artists in the Eastern world 8
To compensate for their lack of ‘realism’, that is painting an actual Muslim woman; many artists including Ingres and Gerome “[hired] prostitutes, [used] Jewish women or to simply use their imagination. This led to a distorted view of Oriental women, one where the women appeared as the artists hoped they would be”.9 This imagination of the oriental woman created a sense of exoticism that carried on as a form of realistic thinking, in particular about the ‘harem’. Pictorial harems paved the way for many young artists by portraying the orient woman as a submissive sexual object which many artists took advantage of in their paintings.
Gerome, was one of the few French orientalists to have travelled the Near East. In Gerome’s Slave Market, we can see a difference in the way the women are represented as opposed to the way the women were represented in Caffi’s version of a slave bazaar. The painting is of a young woman being bought by a slave merchant. The painting depicts the woman being examined by the slave merchant who is forcefully holding back her head and checking her mouth, while three men around her stare in deep thought and other men and women go about their business, as if to suggest a common place and practice. The “reading of Gerome’s Slave Market is especially interesting because it articulated a network of significant details all directed towards a morally judgmental, yet-still-eroticized image”.10 Although, Gerome paints her in a way that you might feel apologetic of her situation, his sexualized depiction of the woman also denotes the barbaric oriental male. A close comparison of Caffi and Gerome’s painting shows a stark difference of representation of Middle-Eastern women. This may arguably allude to colonial interests.
Ingres was one of those Artists that never traveled to the Near East, but relied heavily on eyewitness accounts and travel logs from tourists. Specific references that Ingres relied on were the published letters of Lady Montague. It is important, however, to note “some scholars wonder if Ingres actually read the text or recorded what he wished to remember from a loose translated edition. Ingres would write certain passages or phrases in his notebooks, yet he disregarded many of Lady Montague’s conclusions” (Bloom, pg. 17). For example, in one of Lady Montague’s letters she writes that Turkish women
…are perhaps more free than any ladies in the universe, and are the only women in the world that lead a life of uninterrupted pleasure, exempt from cares; their whole time being spent in visiting, bathing, or the agreeable amusement of spending money, and inventing new fashions… ‘Tis true, they have no places but the bagnios, and these can only be seen by their own sex; however, that is a diversion they take great pleasure in11
Bagnios here are defined as a Turkish bath, but Ingres took from this specific letter to mean a bathhouse similar to a brothel in Europe. In another account, Lady Montague writes
…I was met at the door by two black eunuchs, who led me through a long gallery, between two ranks of beautiful young girls, with their hair finely plaited, almost hanging to their feet, all dressed in fine light damasks, brocaded with silver…On a sofa, raised three steps, and covered with fine Persian carpets, sat the kahya’s lady [Sultana] leaning on cushions of white [satin], embroidered; and at her feet sat two young girls about twelve years old, lovely as angels, dressed perfectly rich, and almost covered with jewels 12
The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies; and on the second, their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed. Yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them. They walked and moved with the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our general mother with. There were many amongst them, as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn by the pencil of a Guido or Titian,–and most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or ribbon, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces 13
It is clear from the description that Lady Montague gives us here, that Ingres was greatly inspired by her words and formed his own conceptions of what the bagnios meant, according to some scholars “his conceptions were generally misconceptions”13 as Kelly Bloom notes. It was from this letter and many more of Lady Montague’s that inspired one of Ingres’ most famous paintings, The Turkish Bath, which was finalized in 1862.
Lady Montague’s descriptions of the Turkish women were innocent and playful with no “immodest gestures” or “wanton smiles”. Ingres’ The Turkish Bath is clearly sexual in comparison. What is most interesting about The Turkish Bath is the shape in which Ingres constructed the painting. The circular shape looks more like a peephole in a door as though the viewer is looking in the Muslim forbidden quarters.
The multitude of nudes gives it a tensional erotic feel. Even the way each nude is presented take away from the “majestic grace” Lady Montague tells us about in her letters. For instance, in the foreground Ingres paints a clearly sexualized scene of a nude erotically engulfed in her own body and next to her are two other women engaged with one another’s bodies while another sitting with her back turned to the viewer is oblivious to anything but her instrument. The women’s positions and suggestive expressions create a sense of erotic engagement with the painting. What is perhaps most interesting about Ingres’ work is that Lady Montague is not in the painting, which is odd, considering the fact that he borrowed her experience of the bathhouse it would only make sense to include the person who experienced it firsthand. If Ingres’ had included Lady Montague in the painting it would have been considered blasphemous because the European woman (to the Orientalist that is) is a dignified and classy lady and the Eastern woman barbaric and lost.
What is problematic in this light is that Ingres and Gerome’s work on the Orient to many Europeans seemed real. It had an ideological reality just like pornography does, but few really bought it as evidently painting until Gerome combines academic classicalism with photography. Such rendering carried through so many generations of the ‘weak’ and ‘meek’ Middle-Eastern woman. Lady Montague’s letters are proof of Ingres’ and Gerome’s contradictions, after all Ingres never actually visited the Near East, but had to rely on tourist accounts such as Lady Montague. We find through her writing that the harems were something much more different than that of what many Orientalist artists were portraying. They were, as Yeazell describes them, only harems of the mind; an imagination of the artist.
Both the French and Italian Orientalists represented middle-eastern women in light of their own understanding. For the Italians it may have been less objectified or sexualized because of their diplomatic standing with the Ottoman Empire and their close proximity to the Near East. For the French it seems more of an imperialistic movement where most French artists did not even travel to the Near East and understanding of the culture. Art can be powerful in portraying any kind of ideology. Artists are biased in their own right, Orientalist art certainly paved the way the west thought about the East, especially middle-eastern women, which even till today has had a tremendous outlook on how they have been represented in the West.
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