Paintings of the Harem: Posed Fantasies and European Orientalist Painting

Meredith Pilcher

In the context of Orientalism, beauty is quite dangerous, as it lures the viewer into accepting the fantasy.  I want to expose the distortions these paintings present and provoke the view into a different kind of seeing, one that shapes a new understanding.[1]

 Lalla Essaydi

This essay first explores how male Orientalist painters have influenced Lalla Essaydi’s photographs. It will also consider the ways in which Orientalist images depict Arab women, especially in the context of the posed female body in a highly constructed, architectural environment. These are imagined visions of the harem, or private spaces of the Arab home. The majority of European artists who traveled to Morocco or other Arab lands during the nineteenth century did not have direct access to viewing Arab women in the home and instead they rendered images drawn from their imaginations.[2]  Many Orientalist paintings are small in scale, and were produced specifically for the male viewer. Depictions of the Harem created an eroticized theme that enforced the idea of women being kept in isolated areas available to their masters for sexual endeavors. In their day they were not unlike issues of Playboy magazine, marketed especially to a male audience.

Essaydi’s Contact with Orientalist Works in America: Seductive Reality

Women’s Placement and Gaze in the Built Environment

Works Cited and Suggestions for Further Reading

Click here for a .pdf of the entire essay by Meredith Pilcher.

[1] Ming Ling, “Writing Women: Interview with Lalla Essaydi,” ArtAsiaPacific, March 21, 2013.

[2] Nicholas Tromans and Rana Kabbani, The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2008).