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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

 

Ingres' Influence

In 1847, Lewis married Marian Harper, a twenty year old English woman. Four years later, the couple moved back to England, settling in Campden Hill, and Lewis began exhibiting at the Old Water-Colour Society again. In 1855, Lewis was elected president of the O.W.C.S. following the death of Antony Vandyke Copley Fielding. His presidency did not last long; in 1858 he resigned both presidency and membership in the O.W.C.S. in order to devote himself to painting with oils. The next year, 1859, Lewis became an Associate Member of the Royal Academy. Six years later he was elected a full member, filling the vacancy left by the death of David Roberts. Lewis continued to paint and exhibit at the Royal Academy up to and including the year of his death, 1876.

Lewis' art can be placed into three distinct categories: the animal paintings of his youth; the scenes of Spanish life from his adulthood; and from his middle and old age, the scenes of "Oriental" life inspired by travels to Constantinople and a decade living in Cairo. This paper is concerned with the latter category, and specifically with Lewis' paintings of the harem. This was a subject which fascinated him, and one of which he would create seemingly endless variations.

For some time, the tradition of harem representation has been dominated by the French. For example, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' La Grande Odalisque, the sensuous nude woman lying on her side on a couch covered in fine Eastern fabric became the type for the "odalisque," or the woman kept confined behind the harem walls for the sexual pleasure of the master. Sometimes, as in paintings like Eugene Delacroix' Women of Algiers of 1834, these women would be shown smoking pipes as a reference to the languid, luxurious life led under the influence of opium.

In the nineteenth century, the sensual harem picture would be painted by such French artists as Ingres. Ingres never visited the Near East, yet he represented it in such paintings as La Grande Odalisque, and Odalisque with Slave. Ingres relied on eighteenth century travel accounts, including those of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, wife of the English Ambassador to Constantinople, to provide the background information to his paintings. Though Ingres did not travel beyond Europe, the choice of exotic subjects for his paintings was intended to open another acceptable thematic area. The reclining nude in painting was traditionally legitimized by a classical or mythological setting which distanced her from the Western viewer. The Eastern setting also made paintings of reclining nudes acceptable because it was far away and intrinsically different from the West. La Grande Odalisque is the archetypal image of the eroticized harem woman, inviting the presumably male viewer into her forbidden world of sensual pleasure.

Lewis was certainly aware of the French tradition, and the work of his contemporary, Ingres. He was living in Rome in the late 1830s during which time Ingres was Director of the French Academy at the Villa Medici and was painting Odalisque with the Slave. Being an English gentleman, however, Lewis could not simply follow the French tradition of eroticizing these women because the conservative Victorian public would have rejected his paintings as immoral. His paintings sold easily and for record sums; this would not have been the case if he had not bowed to the tastes and values of the time. Therefore, the challenge was to please the viewing and buying public, while also exploring and satisfying his own interest in the exotic imagery of the East.

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