Produced as part of Gérôme’s wider bathroom and harem collection, this oil on canvas piece was produced between 1880 and 1885 and is now housed by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in their Legion of Honor permanent collection. One of Gérôme’s favorite themes, the bathroom, and harem scene share an intrinsic relationship of significance, where they seem to be extensions of each other, an environment both public and private where the artist’s eye can penetrate to provide this exotic view of the Muslim world.
Similar to other paintings in the Moorish bath series, this piece portrays a very light-skinned woman, possibly part of a wealthy Moor’s harem, being attended to by her dark-skinned servant. This relationship between the Middle East, perhaps even North Africa, and the Subsaharan part of the same continent is a mainstay of this series and many others, with the dark-skinned Muslims subservient to their lighter-skinned brethren.
Here, though, we have a composition brought closer to the characters, enabling to the observer to perceive more details. Less space is left to portray Moorish architecture, which seems to have also been dear to the artist, and more canvas is dedicated to the characters, which is not to say that the features of the building are left out. In fact, this piece presents an even more colorful and detailed background than most, down to the discoloration of the tiles on the wall, the shape of the tap that waters the washbasin and the exquisite calligraphy on the wall.
One point of interest in this piece is the amount of detail dedicated to demonstrating wealth and respect on the servant. Even though she is in a servile position, her body language dominates the light-skinned woman she bathes, above whom she stands assertively, handling her like one would a doll. Not only that, but she seems perfectly comfortable with her nudity, where the light-skinned woman bends her body forward, hiding hers.
Further, her seminude body is covered in jewelry, from her ankles to her ears, marking her as a person upon whom reasonable wealth, and with it, trust, has been laid. In a way, her relationship, posture, and attire suggest a trusted servant of the master of the house, who has seen some girls such as the one she washes come and go but has earned her place.
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