Sunday, 27 May 2007
"Hharems: a rare "Awaiting punishment" & two Lewis' paintings:
"The Introduction of an Abyssinian Slave"
"An intercepted correspondence"
I won't tell you who painted the beautiful "awaiting punishment", here on the side. Learn how to search the web and find it :-)
The first painting to be exhibited at the O.W.C.S. since Lewis settled in the East was The Hhareem, 1850. This was his first painting of an "Oriental" subject matter to be exhibited and the response was powerful; the painting and its copyright sold for 1,000 pounds each. In its review of the 1850 O.W.C.S. exhibition, the Art Journal described the content and the workmanship of the painting:
"This painging by Lewis: "The Harem of a Mameluke Bey, Cairo: The Introduction of an Abyssinian Slave" may be pronounced the most extraordinary production that has ever been executed in water-colour. It represents the interior of a harem at Cairo, wherein is seated in luxurious ease a young Turk, attired in the excess of Moslem fashion. Near him, and reclining upon cushions, are two Circassian women, also dressed in the extremity of Oriental taste, and on the right of these is another figure, evidently a study from an Englishwoman, an introduction which injures the uniformity of the composition. On the right is seen a tall Nubian eunuch, who removes from the shoulders of an Egyptian slave the shawl by which she had been covered, in order to show her to the master of the harem; this figure with her high shoulders and the characteristics of her features, is a most successful national impersonation. The Circassian women look languidly to the Egyptian with an expression of supreme contempt, which is responded to by a sneer on the face of the Nubian eunuch. At the first sight of this work it appears to want force, but it is clearly the intention of the artist to describe an excess of light, for every unimportant item is affected by numerous many-hued reflections, and the description of this is not an attempt, but a successful fulfillment. It is scarcely possible, without the aid of a glass, even to distinguish all the inimitable elaboration of this picture; it prevails in the most insignificant material - the trellis, the carving, the marble, the silk - every surface is described with a fastidiousness of imitation never before seen. There are very many passages of the work which we would describe at length had we space enough; it must, however, be observed that the subject is not worthy of the care with which it has been wrought out; yet it must be said that this work is unique in the history of water-colour Art; such a maintenance of finish has never been preserved in any similar production.
These comments are interesting for several reasons. Firstly, they show a marked interest in ethnicity; for example, the reviewer confidently identifies Turk, Circassian, English, Egyptian, and Nubian. As contact between the West and the Near East increased throughout the nineteenth century, curiosity about these unfamiliar places also increased and "accurate surveys and careful depictions of peoples and places in strange lands" were demanded to confirm that Westerners were superior. Lewis was praised for accomplishing "a most successful national impersonation" in his depiction of the central woman. Her high shoulders are taken as an ethnic characteristic when it seems obvious that her shoulder is raised in an attempt at modesty.
The reviewer suggests that the "Circassian women" of the harem, looking with disgust at the young "Egyptian" woman who is being disrobed by a sneering "Nubian eunuch," do so because of a feeling of ethnic superiority. This implies a hierarchy of Eastern cultures, all of which were considered inferior to the Europeans. Because the new woman is represented as neither white nor black, Lewis ensures that his painting could not be interpreted as a statement for or against the slave trade, as the abolition of slave trading was a topic of debate in England at that time. The gazelles in the painting are symbols of the harem women themselves. Lewis, however, did not create this comparison; Eastern poetry often referred to the similarities between the shy, graceful animals and the beautiful women of the harem.
By far the most intriguing statement in the critique is that "the subject is not worthy of the care with which it has been wrought out." While proclaiming Lewis' unrivalled mastery of the water-colour technique, the reviewer passes judgement on the choice of subject matter. Why is this scene not fit for representation in a painting, and why is it not worthy of masterful treatment? No answer to these questions is explicitly given, yet from a close reading of the language used in the review, words such as 'luxurious ease,' 'excess,' 'extremity,' and 'languidly,' there comes a sense that the critic has been offended by the sensuality that images of the East brought to mind. This would perhaps explain the attempt to point out the faults, such as the multitude of "unimportant item[s]" and the prevalence of "the most insignificant material," in a painting which was introduced as "the most extraordinary production that has ever been executed in water-colour."
"the black eunuch harem servant, who is disrobing the new slave, and such black slaves, both male and female, were obtained from modern day Sudan - presumably in raids from Arab tribes, similar to those who are carrying off southern Sudanese into slavery in the 21st century.
It's striking how similar the new slave's clothing is to Lane's description of lower class Egyptian women and his engravings in "Modern Egyptians": her loose, white linen "tob" is already slipped off her shoulders, and her chequered or striped milayeh is held by the eunuch. Even the red borders that Lane mentions are included.
Lane's illustrations depict most of the poorer Egyptian free women appearing barefoot when outdoors, even when fully veiled. The new slave stands barefoot on the marble "durka'ah" of the room where shoes are permitted, and we can assume she has arrived in that condition, as befits her lack of status up to that point. Her new master's leather shoes, on which he even steps on the lowest level of the divan, further emphasises her state of vulnerability.
Looking past her, we see the only veiled woman in the picture, and her eyes are intently watching the bey out of the corner of her eye. No doubt she is veiled because she is not a member of his harem, and is there representing the slave dealer. Lane informs us that purchasers were allowed three days trial of a new slave, and so this initial examination is not simply a post-sale formality. As such, the "Hhareem" is another representation of the prospective owner's choice over whether to take possession of a slave, and the powerlessness that Gerome's "Slave Market" had shown.
The facial expressions of the painting are as varied as the origins of its inhabitants. The new slave's eyes are demurely cast to the floor, as she clutches the tob over her breasts. Both the standing eunuch, and the standing Abyssinian slave girl with the peacock feather fan, have broad smiles - perhaps prompted by the others' reactions? The bey is leaning forward to see his new acquisition, but his three European women are not convinced. From bottom right up in status to top left, they are questioning, pouting, and in the case of the favourite who reclines on the divan level with the bey, positively frowning. Reading Lane's account of the domestic arrangements of a harem, it's clear that many customs were instituted to manage these petty jealousies which can so easily, and accidentally, arise.
When Lewis returned to Britain, some of the praise for his painting was for depicting this scene without an excess of "grossness and sensuality" (that is, eroticism in our terms.) Nevertheless, it remained his most explicit painting, and in 1869 he revisited the scene to paint his "An Intercepted Correspondence", toned-down with the romantic flowers narrative and all those smiling faces.
In creating "An Intercepted Correspondence" from "The Introduction of an Abyssinian Slave", Lewis retained the three unimpressed European women draped over the divan, added another reclining on the marble floor, and introduced two new central characters to replace the new slave: the recipient of the flower message, and another harem woman who bows to her master as she holds out the flowers in one hand, and the offender in the other. The master of the harem has also aged the same twenty years that Lewis had, and he is surrounded by double the number of those expensive European slaves, so perhaps he is a pasha rather than a mere bey.
The body language of the women remains little changed, but now their facial expressions all betray varying degrees of amusement and derision at the expense of their offending sister. And now the pasha leans forward with a stern look, rather than with the anticipation of the new slave's potential from the earlier painting."