Mid-Victorian artists’ fascination with ‘Oriental Ladies in Harems’

A few days ago, I went to see The Enchanted Interior at the Guildhall Art Gallery, curated and developed by the Laing Art Gallery and Madeleine Kennedy, and adapted by the Guildford Art Gallery. It examined the fascination Oriental art and life in the Middle East held for Mid-Victorian to early 20th century British artists. What appears to have attracted them most was the allure of beautiful women hidden away in harems, living in a ‘gilded cage’. The exhibition is full of pictures of exotic Oriental interiors – usually in Constantinople (Istanbul) or Cairo, or somewhere similar. There are elaborately ornamental wooden grilles to keep the women safe from prying eyes; exotic, colourful Oriental carpets; maids bringing in food and drink; and – probably most the important – the women lounging on the carpets or ottomans all seem perfectly contented.

John Frederick, Life in the Harem, Cairo. 1858. The lady lounges on an ottoman, she has flowers in her lap. A female servant enters with refreshments. A eunuch follows her.

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W. Holman Hunt: The Awakening Conscience

I have long been fascinated by the Victorian age. It was a time of huge contrasts, as well as social mobility- certainly for men. But what about women? At the beginning of the Victorian age, they had no legal existence, they couldn’t vote, nor have a bank account, and what work opportunities they had, in factories or shops, say, were were less well-paid than men. As for any more professional position – forget it. The choice of jobs for most middle-class women was being a governess or lady’s companion for, at most, about £35 a year, or, for a few talented writers, actresses, artists or musicians, you might be able to make a decent living, if your father or family were also in the same profession.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 William Holman Hunt, Tate Gallery

However, there was an alternative – a shocking one; become a mistress.

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