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John Frederick Lewis, RA

Self-Censorship in the Harem Paintings of J.F. Lewis

by Elizabeth Malcolm

Art History Senior Thesis - Hartwick College, May 1997

 

Hareem Life, Constantinople & Life in the Harem, Cairo

Hareem Life, Constantinople, 1857, is one of Lewis' last water-color paintings before he left the O.W.C.S. to join the Royal Academy. However, it was the first of several more intimate scenes of daily life in the harem than those previously discussed. In this painting, a woman reclines on a sofa, and teases a cat with a peacock-feather fan. The cat awaits its moment to dislodge a few more feathers with paw bent and ready to strike. The sofa itself is a golden yellow with patterns of green leaves, yet this is only seen in a small area because the rest is covered with white fabric perhaps used to save the fine material from fading in the light. The second woman stands close to the foot of the couch where the first woman reclines, and seems to be watching the game. She stands almost at attention, as if she had come into the room to give a message to the seated woman, but has delayed momentarily to observe. An outside presence in the small room is not acknowledged. The seated woman watches the cat, the cat watches the fan, the standing woman observes both, and the woman whose feet appear in the mirror is presumably also watching. As Lewis could not have physically been present in a harem, his presence in this painting as the artist and creator is symbolized by the feet of the unseen person. They also could be the feet of the viewer, creating a subtle sense of voyeurism.

In the reviews of this painting, the standing woman is, without exception, referred to as an "attendant." While there are no significant differences in the representations of the two women, except that one's fan is of better quality, the reviewers labeled one "mistress" and the other "servant." Lewis could quite possibly have been representing two wives; however, as the practice of polygyny was considered uncivilized and immoral by the Victorians, it is natural that they would append a less controversial meaning to the painting.

Lewis carries over some of the elements of Hareem Life, Constantinople into his painting Life in the Harem, Cairo from 1858. The seated woman, possibly modeled on Lewis' wife Marian, gazes thoughtfully at a bouquet of flowers in her lap. These flowers may be of the same tradition as those in An Intercepted Correspondence, Cairo. Through a key-hole doorway to the right, a girl enters carrying a tray, followed by a black slave. The same servant girl becomes the subject of a smaller watercolor the next year, in 1859. Is the girl entering the room another wife, suggesting polygyny? By giving her a tray, Lewis blurs the distinction between wife and servant, leaving the decision to personal interpretation, and maintaining his "artistic neutrality."

If one substituted the lattice windows, key-hole doorway, and Egyptian dresses with the typical Victorian drawing room and costume, this scene would be no more unusual or sensuous. For example, Frank Stone's painting from the same year, Friendship Endangered, is similar in composition to Life in the Harem, Cairo. Here a woman sits and looks at a letter rather than a bouquet. Light comes into the room from an unseen window and another woman enters from a doorway. Even the two framed pictures on the wall are reminiscent of the mirror and framed calligraphy in Lewis' painting. The similarity of composition in the two paintings emphasizes Lewis' method of "Orientalizing" an otherwise ordinary domestic scene.

Sophie Lane Poole was an English woman traveler who, in her published account of 1844, The Englishwoman in Egypt, reported that "the discipline which is exercised over the young women in the eastern hareem can only be compared to that which is established in the convent." Both types of women live in a private sanctuary and display devotion to one master; the nun to the spiritual Lord, and the harem woman to her earthly lord. In this regard, the Pre-Raphaelite Charles Allston Collins' 1851 painting, Convent Thoughts, and Lewis' 1865 painting, In the Bey's Garden, Asia Minor, show many similarities. The women both stand in enclosed gardens, signifying their remove from the rest of society. Both bow their heads toward a tall growth of flowers; the nun, standing among lilies, contemplates a passion flower symbolizing of Christ's crucifixion, and the harem woman cuts a white lily. This action may symbolize the latter's loss of purity. Placing the nun in a garden with white lilies makes reference to the garden of paradise, thus elevating her earthly status to a spiritual one. It seems that Lewis has adapted the elements of Collins' painting to represent the Islamic paradise, also a garden. The butterflies at the bottom of the painting give weight to this reading as they convey the soul to paradise. By modeling his harem painting on a religious painting, Lewis elevates the status of the harem woman and makes a statement for the tolerance of Islam as an equally spiritual and civilized faith. This is important because the Christian West had long feared the supposed threat of Islam.

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