This piece is part of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s series of slave market paintings, all which set either in ancient Rome, which Selling Slaves in Rome exemplifies, or 19th century Istanbul, a duality which by itself is telling of how Gérôme regarded both times and spaces in relation to each other. Either Istanbul was the legitimate heir to the Roman Empire, which is unlikely if we consider the European mentality that time, or stuck in the same mental space that Europe had long ago surpassed. In all likelihood, considering the Orientalist regard for all things Muslim and, by consequence, exotic, Gérôme himself would not have had seen any difficulty in conjoining those two points of view, conflating backwardness and the good old times.
Like its peers, this slave market scene the explores sensual beauty, while still enabling the artist to showcase a variety of facial expressions in the same piece, which goes hand in hand with the Academic Classicist ethos. In this piece set in Ancient Rome, a slave trader, wearing a toga in the red colour of Roman aristocracy, offers to a crowd of distinct customers his latest lot: a nude light skinned woman, her disrobed figure posing sensually for the perusal of the prospective buyers, hiding her face in her arm with her white clothes lying behind her, lumped on the floor.
Between slaver merchant and slave and sitting closer to the observer is a young man, also nude but for a large piece of green cloth much like the one that the lot has discarded on the ground covering his body, impassively watching the scene. The crowd displays a variety of reactions to the nude figure, going from amazement to disgust all are interested, and among the crowd of men is a single woman, the only one who does not seem to be showing interest in this lot, but whose eyes instead rest on the next lot who sits in the back of the stage.
In this painting, which bears a strong conceptual load, the slave hiding her face serves to, at the same time, dehumanize her, thus making it acceptable to objectify and sexualize her and instill in the slave chastity, so necessary for the idealization of the female gender. In line with 19th-century values, it is only acceptable for the male gaze to fall upon the woman’s naked body if she is adequately ashamed.
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