A crowd is forming outside some formidably solid doors in a shady corner of the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. For centuries, westerners have been enticed and inspired by what happened on the other side – and a group of European artists made their careers with their own fantasies of what life was like there. Today, the doors are open to hordes of tourists who have come to explore the sultan’s private harem a crowd for themselves.
It is precisely these kinds of ornamental details that delighted the British painters who travelled to the near east in the 19th century. Artists such as William Holman Hunt, Frederic Leighton, David Wilkie and John Frederick Lewis relied on replicating such nuances to convince the public at home of their paintings’ authenticity.
Yet the tiles, however beautiful, didn’t excite the artists nearly as much as what actually went on in the harem. This polygamous domain was popularly perceived as the epitome of oriental omnipotence and oppression, home to multiple wives and hundreds of sex slaves, answerable to each and every whim of a domineering sultan. The French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme imagined harem life as a fog of narghile smoke. His voluptuous and usually nude women can usually be found toking on a hookah or lounging poolside, casting seductive glances at each other.
But Gérôme knew as little about harem life as the British painters whose landscapes, portraits and harem scenes will be exhibited at Tate Britain’s summer spectacular The Lure of the East. Western men, painters or not, were strictly forbidden to enter the harem. This is one of the paradoxes at the heart of British orientalist art, which is finely balanced between accuracy and fancy.
The critic Edward Said’s famous suggestion in Orientalism, published 30 years ago, that the Orient is a western invention is particularly suited to the British painters’ harem scenes. But whether their paintings are the offshoots of an imperialist agenda remains open to interpretation. Given the secretive nature of the harem and a general shortage of authentic accounts, the artists had little option but to take a leap of the imagination when painting harem life. How big a leap they took was partly determined by the exotic expectations of the art buyers back home.
For background information the British painters relied on female investigations into harem life, such as the writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The wife of a British ambassador, Montagu spent time in Istanbul and strived to get to know Ottoman women and deliver dispatches from their private world. Her collected letters were published in 1763 and sparked interest for their apparently eyewitness insights. Edward William Lane, who wrote extensively about his travels in Egypt, realised that he had only a limited understanding of Egyptian women’s life. He encouraged his sister Sophia Poole to accompany him on a trip, so that she might witness scenes forbidden to western men. (It worked – she made her way into the Egyptian pasha’s harem.)
John Frederick Lewis lent his visually opulent style to the harem’s customs and receptions – a slave trader visits the sultan in The Hhareem (1850); a lady receives visitors in The Reception (1873) – but he seemed willing to concede the dullness of harem days. His Hareem Life, Constantinople (1857) turns sheer boredom into breathtaking beauty. In the painting, light floods into a room where two women are watching a tortoiseshell cat that has picked apart a bouquet of peacock feathers. On first sight, the scene is both playful and peaceful, but with the tight framing and the women’s distracted expressions, we might be observing the same detached dullness depicted in Camden by Sickert 60 years later.
Lewis spent a year in Constantinople and most of the 1840s in Cairo. Famously, Thackeray visited Lewis at home there and later described the painter as having become a “languid lotus-eater” living a “dreamy, lazy, hazy, tobacco-fied life”. Many of the British painters posed in oriental costumes, either lounging around with long-stemmed pipes or, in the case of William Holman Hunt’s self-portrait in the exhibition, in the act of painting itself. Lewis, who sports a turban and scimitar in photographs at the exhibition, seems to have been most successful at convincing his audience that he was the real deal.
An 1860 painting by Lewis, In the Bezestein, El Khan Khalil, Cairo, presents a carpet seller who, it has been suggested, looks a lot like the artist himself. The implication is that Lewis’s paintings of the near east, exhibited and sold at the Royal Academy, can be considered the genuine article – as authentic as the very carpets sold in a Cairo bazaar. The truth of his spectacular harem scenes, as so much else, is that fact and fancy are skilfully interwoven.