This piece painted in 1886 is one in a series of harem and bathing scene paintings produced by Gérôme in consequence of his travels through the Orient with a group of geologists, which took him to Egypt and the Near East. Now in possession of private collectors, the oil on canvas is also known as The Terrace of the Seraglio and displays the amalgamation of Orientalism and Romanticism that punctuated the artist’s work.
It portrays two groups of women, one clothed lounging and one in the nude bathing in the pool. Between them, a dark-skinned servant brings another hookah pipe, as well as a long pipe, to the lounging group. In the back, a dark clothed figure watches the woman’s revelry from a chaise. The scene happens in an enclosed space, with the sky only visible through distant windows and the skylight.
One interesting aspect of Gérôme’s harem and bathing scenes is that they often include in their composition a pair of hookah pipes, usually being offered of prepared by a servant. The fact that the appearance of the pipes is always the same leads one to consider if they were not part of the artist’s personal belongings, as it is known that he was in the habit of favoring some of his objects in his paintings. More than that, the ever-present pipes also indicate the ever-present consumption of either tobacco, opium or cannabis, the latter being more likely, since tobacco is an American commodity, even though its consumption was already well established in the Old World by the 19th century.
If the substances consumed were, in fact, cannabis and opium, both native to the Near East, then the artist implies a somehow darker aspect of the odalisques’ existence. Always portrayed behind closed doors, usually being guarded by armed men except in their bathing areas, and bearing somewhat nostalgic features, one is led to wonder about their willingness to be where they are.
Regardless of intent, through his love for depicting architecture Gérôme portrays the enclosure of his models, and through his attention, to detail, he takes the observer into a world previously unknown for Westerners. As such, it is difficult to set ethnographic interest apart from the cultural bias that could lead to certain exaggerations in the depiction of said exotic environments.
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