Paintings of lustful Muslim women bathing and dancing, exposed ankles and flirtatious silky skirts, might have done wonders for the Western male of the 19th century, but as the subject of an art exhibit today, they expose his fears.
Don’t let truth ruin a perfectly beautiful picture. Do let high demand and market taste drive your creative voice. This seems to be the unapologetic approach taken by the Orientalist artists featured in the Flagler Museum’s winter exhibition, Harem: Unveiling the Mystery of Orientalist Art. For one, their works fostered the public belief that the women occupying this forbidden, segregated space, were essentially concubines or prostitutes ¬–despite never having set foot inside one. Very early into the exhibition one realizes the irony: the artists prostituted their skill for a profit.
About 50 pieces, including paintings, drawings, sculptures and rare books, explore the misconceptions and potential truths that visually captivated Gilded Age collectors of Orientalist art. Included here are some of the harem pieces Henry Flagler bought and showcased at his Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine.
“There is a lot more going on in these paintings than you would think at first sight,” said Tracy Kamerer, Flagler Museum chief curator.
The lush details, exotic fabrics, shiny ornaments and vivid colors easily distract one from the fact that these images are spectacularly wrong, or, at the very least, misleading. The light skin color and features given to majority of the women are highly suspicious; women of such physical traits were rare in the harem. The lord of the house is missing from most pictures and, when included, is not given much attention.
Then there is the strange absence of domestic labor and parenting in general, as if daily harem life consisted of playing instruments, bathing and reclining on cushions and fur. The second gallery room offers an exception with Rudolf Ernst’s Occupations of the Seraglio, where habitants are shown in the bright light of day engaging in manual tasks and reading with their children.
The explicit lounging poses and seductive gestures everywhere else come across too obvious, like a cheap invitation. The protagonist in Entrance to a Harem by Addison Thomas Millar, an American artist who never traveled to the East, leans back by a half-open door leading up to a mysterious dark room. She holds a tambourine while resting her left hand on her hip. The young woman looks bored, impatient, as if her main purpose in life (to entertain of course) had been taken from her.
The myth being promoted had these women as sexual slaves or domestic animals waiting to serve their master, hence they often appear accompanied by exotic animals, as with Woman and Little Girl of Constantine with a Gazelle by Théodore Chassériau. However, the scenes show no sign of misery, sadness or resistance. In Juan Giménez Martín’s The Sultan’s Favorite, one of the paintings owned by Flagler, the woman’s expression is not one of a victim in distress. In fact, she seems to be enjoying a freedom unknown to her Western counterpart. She poses confidently and appears rather powerful surrounded by traditional Oriental items, such as an incense burner and a hookah.
How this intensely private environment, destined for Oriental women, slaves and children and off-limits to foreigners, fueled this imagined sinful world thought to be ruled by polygamy, immorality and decadence is perplexing, but not inexplicable. There was a need to remind the Western society of its moral superiority and keep its women in check.
“Some scholars believe that portrayal of these women as ‘having a good time’ would have been interpreted as depravity, and that they were sexual beings and were enjoying it,” Kamerer said. “This showed they were inferior.”
To be fair, some artists, such as Frederick Arthur Bridgman, resisted the call to feed the negative stereotypes of the harem and shifted toward more flattering interpretations, although they might not be free of judgment. In the first gallery room, a comparison is drawn between Bridgman and his teacher Jean-Léon Gérôme by presenting their takes side by side.
Gérôme’s Excursion of the Harem, features a group of rowers sailing along the Nile. Instead of showing the women, as Bridgman has done in Morning on the Bosphorus, his French master keeps them veiled and tucked away inside the boat to the point that they are hardly visible. Bridgman’s oil painting was among those Flagler owned and displayed at his hotel.
Unveiling the Mystery, which runs through April 16, cannot give a definitive answer as to what a harem was truly like or the extent of the damage done by the propaganda. The best it can do is to present evidence in the form of letters and literature that contradict aspects of the visual interpretations. The written words published at the time might have been more truthful, especially if written by female authors who experienced harem life firsthand, but could not have competed with daring plots featuring women smoking and belly dancing. At worst, the Western audience of the time was guilty of selective ignorance.
Harem: Unveiling the Mystery of Orientalist Art runs through April 16 at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach. Museum prices: Adults: $18; $10 for youth ages 13-17; $3 for children ages 6-12; and children under 6 admitted free. Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 561-655-2833 or visit www.flaglermuseum.us