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Mary Roberts. Intimate Outsiders: The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0822339670. Price: US$23.95

  • Joan DelPlato

…more information

  • Joan DelPlato
    Bard College at Simon’s Rock

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Mary Roberts’s book marks an important turn in the study of representations of the harem in both visual and written texts. The West has had much to say in words and pictures about the harem in the nineteenth century but, until now, few records have been located about historical Ottoman women themselves. In her short and highly accessible book Mary Roberts develops the newest direction in Orientalist studies by considering “intimate outsiders”: those British and Ottomans – artists, writers, and patrons – who had privileged, cross-cultural connections to the harem. She investigates the grey areas between East and West, challenging the strict binary articulated most notably in Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism (1978). She demonstrates that the divide between western Orientalists and Ottomans in the field of nineteenth-century visual art was bridged, more open to historical contingency, and more engaged with micropolitical exertions of power and constructions of blended identity. She locates western artists–John Frederick Lewis, Mary Walker and Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann–and about a dozen women writers who enter into cultural exchange with Ottoman hostess-patrons. And far from being stereotypically opiated odalisques lounging half-dressed in anticipation of their paşas, passive objects pitched toward a male viewer, elite Ottoman women in Istanbul and Cairo exerted their agency in helping to formulate their own self-representations as a mixture of eastern and western influences at a time when Turkey and Egypt constructed respective modernization movements.

This means that Roberts’s book covers much ground. Her own research took her to six foreign countries. Hers is a compelling demonstration of the intertwining of fashion history and social history with the histories of art and literature. The trajectory of Roberts’s book is to establish the dominant masculine fantasy of the harem in Part 1, to consider its reworking by British women authors who create their own “feminine harem fantasy” (15) in Part 2, and, finally, to document in Part 3 the contestation of both clusters of attitudes by two specific Ottoman women who commission their own portraits.

Part I considers the masculine fantasy of the harem through the pictures of John Frederick Lewis, a major Oriental painter whose work has experienced a renewed scholarly interest in the last few decades. Roberts does well to separate analyses of Lewis’s harem pictures from the tired Victorian “realist” explanation that would see his views of the harem as authentic because he was immersed in Cairo life for a decade and, therefore, having gone native according to William Makepeace Thackeray, used a highly mimetic technique. Instead Roberts rightly claims that Lewis produced “a convincing visual fiction: the realist fantasy” (21). She provides a fresh reading of Lewis’s harem pictures in analyzing the dynamics of gazes at play when viewers looked at his pictures and in considering the painted gazes of the characters themselves. For Roberts, Lewis’s harem pictures represent visual experiments in creating the harem’s intimacy for the viewer. She concludes that Lewis “redefined the harem fantasy with this new strategy of providing entry into painted space” (54). This intimate entry was achieved by his works’ offering a wealth of detail and pleasure in multisensory synesthesia – suggesting fragrances of flowers and tobacco; the tactility of satin, silk crêpe and velvet; and the sight of light playing over intricate fabric. Roberts notes insightfully that these are also the concerns of the women writers whose works occupy the second part of the book.

Women’s writing on the harem has become a subgenre that feminist scholars have interpreted as a challenge to the masculine fantasy. Female travelers saw the harem not as a den of excess but as the locale for home and family. Roberts goes beyond this interpretation by considering how British women authors constructed the harem according to their own feminine fantasy. They did so using a variety of means. By recording harem women’s interest in looking at men in their environments they inverted the conventional power dynamic of their being looked at. Their own needs as western women were addressed in describing their “sapphic fantasy” (64) as the harem women, curious about European clothing, undressed them. Finding themselves fearful and dislocated in settings far from home, these authors used detailed descriptions of the harem’s physical pleasures to satisfy their own narcissism. The result is that these women writers disrupted what Jacques Lacan called the mastery of the masculine gaze in the conventional harem picture and showed it to be “a fragile illusion” (85). Her claim that written texts are appropriate to a study of visual images because they are about spectatorship—women writers presented themselves both “as eyewitness and participant” (61) —provides an important rationale for her interdisciplinary study and for many art historical studies that utilize literature on this theme. In just one of her many excellent capstone sentences as she moves fluidly between detail and implication, Roberts articulates women writers’ awareness of “the complex relationship between processes of looking, veiling practices, and the gendering of space within Islamic cultures” (98).

In Part 3, “Harem Portraiture,” Roberts demonstrates her familiarity with Ottoman art and rapidly changing elite culture. She considers Mary Walker’s 1850s portraits of Princess Fatma Sultan, daughter of the sultan Abdulmecit. Appropriately, these portraits, painted by Walker as a harem guest and prohibited from being shown outside the harem, are hypothetical, known to us only from Walker’s travelogue, a document Roberts relies upon heavily in constructing her chapter, calling it unique “because for the first time it enables us to address the role of elite Ottoman women in the patronage of Western painting” (112). There were tensions between how Mary Walker wanted to paint the princess, using chiaroscuro and wearing native dress, and how she wanted to be painted, in the more two-dimensional style of traditional Ottoman painting and sporting trendy Parisian fashion. Roberts’s point is that Fatma Sultan was no passive toy but a powerful woman who made her needs clear to the painter who would have preferred to sustain her own fantasy about harem women.

The second case Roberts considers is Danish-born Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann’s portraits of Egyptian princess Nazli Hanım in the late 1860s. Her father, Mustafa Fazil Paşa, was a social and political liberal who had chosen European governesses for his daughter. She and Jerichau-Baumann met when the princess was fifteen, before her marriage to Halil Şerif Paşa, an art lover and patron of the erotic work of J.A.D. Ingres and Gustav Courbet, and before Hanim herself embarked on a career as an artist. Here the relationship of patroness to painter was more amiable. But still Jerichau-Baumann retained a harem fantasy of an Oriental beauty entrapped in the harem and having a mother as crude as her daughter was refined. Roberts raises the ethical question of the public showing of images of Nazli Hanım which, unlike those of Fatma Sultan, were exhibited in London.

Roberts provides a brilliant exegesis of the two photographic portraits of Nazli Hanım which also illustrate the cover of her book, one a mélange of western and eastern motifs and poses, the other a parody of western harem odalisque with paşa, as Nazli Hanım masquerades as a man. Ottoman women, she concludes, had the cultural agency to play, creatively reconstructing and making humorous their complex self-identity at a time when they “were renegotiating their cultural identity, embracing the challenge of modernization and engagement with the West” (4). Magically, before our very eyes, Roberts opens up two rather nondescript photos offering us layer upon layer of meaning, marrying a sharp eye for detail with historical acumen. This is Orientalist art history at its best.

Of course, Roberts’s history of these elites is a study distinct from histories of popular misconceptions of those elites in Europe. She has unearthed valuable information about Fatma Sultan and Nazli Hanım, showing them to have been active cultural agents as well as princesses, members of the highest elite. Such active cultural roles do not mean that “women of the harem” (insofar as women disparate in social class, habitus, and locales spanning the Maghreb to Southeast Asia can be classified as such) were not disempowered from the point of view of British viewers or that such degradation did not contribute to Eurocentrism and empire-building. It does mean that that the representations of historical women and stereotyped women need to be continuously drawn in relation to each other, as Roberts does throughout. However, even the conventional “male fantasy” is not static, as Roberts discovers in her close analysis of Lewis’s harem pictures. Like the alternative fantasies she puts forth, male constructions of the harem allowed British elites and non-elites to use visual art, fashion, and literature to fashion themselves—in various nuanced and historically contingent ways—in relation to an “uncivilized,” non-Christian Other.

A key question raised by Roberts’s study is this: Can Victorian women’s writing about the harem be considered a subgenre? She would reply in the affirmative, differentiating female tourists who could get access to the harem from male visitors who were prohibited. And she rightly assumes female authors were not necessarily more empathetic than male writers to the harem women they encountered, and their claim of access “was a way of establishing their own privilege within Orientalist discourse” (99). But Roberts’s answer would be problematic. She has not confirmed, nor can she, that each female author she presents was an historical woman rather than a persona for a male author eager to cash in on what was widely considered the fact of women’s privileged access. And it also would be impossible to ensure that each woman writer did indeed enter a harem and respond to that experience rather than simply taking her cues, intertextually, from her reading about other “women” entering harems, as the popular Victorian press was rife with “harem” accounts having all the stock elements for visitors—not only coffee, sweetmeats, ‘ood music, the narghile, and jewelry, but also escape plans, pining for a lost love, female rivalry, lesbianism, cruel paşas, and watchful eunuchs. In fact, these motifs could be inverted or parodied by authors of both sexes. One can profitably argue that the construction of the western feminine fantasy based in self-interest through their writing about the harem need not be grounded in the fact of having entered a real one. Nonetheless, a survey of writing on the harem reveals much overarching sameness, formulaic plots (or their humorous disruption), and similar commentary between writers identified as female and those named male even though it may have served different ends.

Mary Roberts is a rare scholar, one who ably analyzes western and eastern art, when the discipline of art history has generally been confined to narrower (hemi-)spheres of expertise. Roberts’s book bridges the gap in scholarship about the Orientalists and the Ottomans. She writes with real depth and clarity informed by new methodologies that guide but never tyrannize her content. All this comes in a book format that is well-organized, accessible, affordable—and a fascinating read.

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