The Lure of Oriental Women


The slow decline of the Ottoman Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries coincided with the rise of an artistic and cultural movement born in the West known as Orientalism. The lure of the otherness and the exoticism of the Orient impregnated the spirit of Western travellers, a phenomenon that Edward Said (1978) connects with the consequences of European colonialism. From Turkey to the Balkans and Central Europe, from the Near East to North Africa, the Ottoman Empire attracted the interest of diplomats, intellectuals, scholars and artists that reproduced and projected in words and images their own interpretations of cultural and ethnographic encounters.

Travel books such as the ones selected in this exhibition contributed to the dawn of Orientalism within the Romantic movement and inspired literary works such as Byron’s Turkish Tales and 19th century painters such as Delacroix, Gérôme and Ingres. Romanticists were also highly influenced by the Arabian tales’ Thousand and One Nights, first translated into French in 1704, which soon became the most important literary referent for travellers to the East and for picturesque artists. In her book Scheherazade Goes West (2000) Fatema Mernissi points out the remaining echoes of such stereotyping visions of feminised East. A striking example of this in popular media is for instance the representation of the Babylonian Harem in Oliver Stone’s film Alexander (2004). Two of the haunting themes of Thousand and One Nights, according to certain Western opinions, were the images of sensual delight and female eroticism. This illusion of female exoticism was a recurrent topic in book lithography too. This engraving from Tableau Général de l’Empire Othoman (Paris 1790) offers a typical view of women’s private quarters (haremlik). Despite the lack of colour, the image is filled with luminosity and delight; a touch of elegant sensuality captures the attention of the invisible viewer who enters the room like a furtive visitor.


Voyerism is also an aspect of the following image which is taken from Recueil de cent Estampes representant differentes Nations du Levant, published in Paris in 1714. The individualised portrait of a woman after her bath epitomises the depiction of the feminised East according to the Orientalist cannon. The power of the image lies also in the contrast between the exuberant interior view that welcomes the viewer’s secret desires and imagination and the harmonic nature suggested and framed by the window. The theme of the engraving inspired later masterpieces of Orientalist painting such as Delacroix’s Algerian Women in their Apartments (1834) and Ingres’s The Turkish Bath (1862).

The opposition outdoor-indoor became another leitmotiv of representations of Levantine women, as we can see in this engraving taking also from the same book. Here an Armenian bride completely covered needs the help of two women to reach the church where she will marry her future husband.


The next image is taken from The Costume of Turkey, illustrated by a series of engravings; with descriptions in English and French (London 1802) and shows the back of an Ottoman woman dressed for her wedding day. The accompanying text explains that the bride would be dressed for the occasion in her most expensive clothes and was ornamented with all her jewels and precious objects. The quality and colour of handmade textiles were important symbols of wealth and status in Ottoman society and their use during the wedding ceremony symbolised the position of the woman’s family. Both the dress and the jewels also represented the ritualised delivery of the bride’s dowry to the husband.


[Stefano Moschini]