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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


The Hhareem

As stated earlier, the Old Water-Colour Society did not receive another painting from Lewis after Easter Day at Rome, 1841, for nine years. In 1848 Lewis was notified by the Society that he was ignoring the rules of membership, which required members to submit at least one painting each year for exhibition, and that his name would be taken off the list of members if he did not conform to the rules. Lewis wrote back apologetically, promising to follow the rules and asking to be reinstated as a member. However, he still did not send a painting to the Society until two years later.

The first painting to be exhibited at the O.W.C.S. since Lewis settled in the East was The Hhareem, 1850. This was his first painting of an "Oriental" subject matter to be exhibited and the response was powerful; the painting and its copyright sold for 1,000 pounds each. In its review of the 1850 O.W.C.S. exhibition, the Art Journal described the content and the workmanship of the painting:

This may be pronounced the most extraordinary production that has ever been executed in water-colour. It represents the interior of a harem at Cairo, wherein is seated in luxurious ease a young Turk, attired in the excess of Moslem fashion. Near him, and reclining upon cushions, are two Circassian women, also dressed in the extremity of Oriental taste, and on the right of these is another figure, evidently a study from an Englishwoman, an introduction which injures the uniformity of the composition. On the right is seen a tall Nubian eunuch, who removes from the shoulders of an Egyptian slave the shawl by which she had been covered, in order to show her to the master of the harem; this figure with her high shoulders and the characteristics of her features, is a most successful national impersonation. The Circassian women look languidly to the Egyptian with an expression of supreme contempt, which is responded to by a sneer on the face of the Nubian eunuch. At the first sight of this work it appears to want force, but it is clearly the intention of the artist to describe an excess of light, for every unimportant item is affected by numerous many-hued reflections, and the description of this is not an attempt, but a successful fulfillment. It is scarcely possible, without the aid of a glass, even to distinguish all the inimitable elaboration of this picture; it prevails in the most insignificant material - the trellis, the carving, the marble, the silk - every surface is described with a fastidiousness of imitation never before seen. There are very many passages of the work which we would describe at length had we space enough; it must, however, be observed that the subject is not worthy of the care with which it has been wrought out; yet it must be said that this work is unique in the history of water-colour Art; such a maintenance of finish has never been preserved in any similar production.

These comments are interesting for several reasons. Firstly, they show a marked interest in ethnicity; for example, the reviewer confidently identifies Turk, Circassian, English, Egyptian, and Nubian. As contact between the West and the Near East increased throughout the nineteenth century, curiosity about these unfamiliar places also increased and "accurate surveys and careful depictions of peoples and places in strange lands" were demanded to confirm that Westerners were superior. Lewis was praised for accomplishing "a most successful national impersonation" in his depiction of the central woman. Her high shoulders are taken as an ethnic characteristic when it seems obvious that her shoulder is raised in an attempt at modesty.

The reviewer suggests that the "Circassian women" of the harem, looking with disgust at the young "Egyptian" woman who is being disrobed by a sneering "Nubian eunuch," do so because of a feeling of ethnic superiority. This implies a hierarchy of Eastern cultures, all of which were considered inferior to the Europeans. Because the new woman is represented as neither white nor black, Lewis ensures that his painting could not be interpreted as a statement for or against the slave trade, as the abolition of slave trading was a topic of debate in England at that time. The gazelles in the painting are symbols of the harem women themselves. Lewis, however, did not create this comparison; Eastern poetry often referred to the similarities between the shy, graceful animals and the beautiful women of the harem.

By far the most intriguing statement in the critique is that "the subject is not worthy of the care with which it has been wrought out." While proclaiming Lewis' unrivalled mastery of the water-colour technique, the reviewer passes judgement on the choice of subject matter. Why is this scene not fit for representation in a painting, and why is it not worthy of masterful treatment? No answer to these questions is explicitly given, yet from a close reading of the language used in the review, words such as 'luxurious ease,' 'excess,' 'extremity,' and 'languidly,' there comes a sense that the critic has been offended by the sensuality that images of the East brought to mind. This would perhaps explain the attempt to point out the faults, such as the multitude of "unimportant item[s]" and the prevalence of "the most insignificant material," in a painting which was introduced as "the most extraordinary production that has ever been executed in water-colour."

The Atheneum previewed the painting three months before the Old Water-Colour Society exhibition:

They whose fastidiousness may reasonably be shocked by the mention of the subject, will find on inspection that their apprehensions are groundless. A sight of it at Mr. Griffith's satisfies us how completely the painter has triumphed in his treatment over his elements -- how he has banished everything like grossness and sensuality.

While the Art Journal had mixed feelings about the painting due to the nature of the subject matter, the Atheneum reassures those who might be shocked that Lewis has sufficiently censored the material. The Illustrated London News said:

This is a marvellous picture; such as men love to linger around, but such as women, we observed, pass rapidly by. There is nothing in the picture, indeed, to offend the finest female delicacy: it is all purity of appearance.

Though it may have appeared pure, the subject matter alone was enough to titillate the men and embarass the women. These reviews show the variety of responses which this unprecedented painting drew.

As Lewis' biographer points out, the present location of this painting is unknown; however, The Hhareem in the Victoria and Albert Museum is believed to be the 1850 original cut down to show only the left-hand group of figures. It has also been suggested that the painting in the Victoria and Albert is a replica. The original was last seen in 1909 at Christie's. Perhaps the painting was cut down, or partially copied, from its original 35" X 53" to its present 18" X 26" to remove the half of the painting which might have been offensive to its new owner.

In 1869, almost two decades after the initial exhibition of The Hhareem, Lewis returned to this composition in the oil painting An Intercepted Correspondence, Cairo. A young harem woman has been caught with a love letter, in the form of a bouquet of flowers, and is being dragged before the master to be punished. A woman caught receiving a love message of this sort could possibly face death, as could her admirer. English viewers were familiar with the use of flowers as messages because Lady Montague popularized the practice, as she had observed was done in the East.

The Victorians, especially, had very clear ideas about adultery, and had a strong iconographic tradition of the due shame and penance of the sinning woman. This often included the death of the woman by suicide. Drowning in the Thames, as is foreshadowed in the third panel of Augustus Egg's triptych, Past and Present, was a frequent method. Lewis takes a subject familiar to the Victorians, the sin and consequences of adultery, and "orientalizes" it; in this way, he illustrates the definition given to "orientalism" by Edward Said: "a western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." By showing the moment of exposure, Lewis avoids explicitly commenting on the fate of the woman. Indeed, the Illustrated London News assumed that rather than a death sentence, the woman would receive "an apparently mild admonition" from the harem master. Thus, Lewis succeeded in portraying a somewhat censored representation of a transgression which could have fatal consequences. While the suicidal fate of adulterous women was an acceptable theme for English paintings, because it contained a moral lesson, combining that extreme with an Eastern setting may have been too overwhelming. Lewis retains the setting and tones down the content to strike a balance.

French artists, who undertook a painting of a large group of harem women, often chose a bath setting where the women would be nude and vulnerable to voyeuristic gazes. An example of this treatment is Ingres' The Turkish Bath from 1863. Had Lewis painted a scene such as this, he would have been severely criticized. Consequently, his painting of a large group of harem women is The Reception or A Lady Receiving Visitors, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874. This magnificent interior is documented as a room from the artist's own house in Cairo.

In this painting, it is the choice of subject which is important, rather than its treatment. The multi-figured bath scene was completely foreign to the Victorians; a woman receiving guests in her home, on the other hand, was not. The distance placed between the observer (the viewer of the painting) and the observed (the harem women), and the real barriers of the pool and fountain, lessens the traditional voyeuristic quality of other harem paintings.

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