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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 focus of my research is the nineteenth century English painter John Frederick Lewis, and specifically his paintings of the harem. I will attempt to show that Lewis adopted a policy of self-censorship in his harem paintings so that they appear less sensual than those of his French contemporaries, and be accepted by the Victorian art world. Joan DelPlato treats this subject in her 1987 dissertation From Slave Market to Paradise: The Harem Pictures of John Frederick Lewis and their Traditions. She proposes that Lewis met this challenge by systematically diminishing explicit erotic content in his paintings of the harem. He employed several methods to accomplish this; for example, the women are, with only one exception, fully clothed. This in itself is a major difference from French paintings of the harem. By the figures' clothing and jewelry, Lewis emphasizes material sumptuousness rather than erotic qualities. He often presents multi-figured narrative paintings which, in their spacious architecturally-detailed settings, assume the atmosphere of a scene from a play, thereby separating the viewer from a potentially immoral situation. Furthermore, Lewis uses symbols in the form of flowers, fruits, and animals to represent meanings which, if expressed openly, might offend. Criticism from the time, commenting on the success and shortcomings of Lewis' method of representing a subject which was viewed with mixed feelings, will be discussed later.

Lewis travelled widely in his youth, finally settling in Cairo for ten years, from 1841 to 1851. The time spent in the East informed Lewis' work for the rest of his life. Lewis was not alone as a painter of harem scenes. Two French contemporaries, Eugene Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, also painted scenes representing "Oriental" life.

The word "Oriental" is used in quotes because the term is no longer in general use, as it denotes a separation into two camps: them and us. The "Orient" was a construct of the Western imperial imagination. "Orientalism" is the term previously used when discussing the relationship between the East and the West, including its manifestations in literature and fine art, and the political, economic, and social interest which the West had for the East. This term has gone out of fashion because it encourages the survival of the differentiation between one and the Other. In the nineteenth century, however, the "Orientalists," including J.F. Lewis, undertook the serious task of translating (an in effect fictionalizing) the exotic Other into forms that could be appreciated by the West. In many cases, and certainly with paintings of the harem, "Orientalist" productions were almost completely imaginary, though they attempted a high degree of realism and authenticity through detail gleaned from traveler's (often women's) accounts.

The harem was both a group of women making up the wives, concubines, and servants of the harem master, or pasha, and the private guarded chambers in which the women lived. According to the practices of Islam, a man could have up to four wives so long as he could provide for them equally, and as many concubines as he wanted. These women lived together and were kept away from other men. No male artists were allowed access to the harem, so their paintings were based on accounts and imagination, not personal experience.

Some women artists were allowed entry, such as Henriette Browne, but they faced the difficulty of maintaining the Western "domination" of the Orient along with their femininity. Browne's paintings posed a threat to both the notion of Western superiority and the Western male's fantasy of multiple sexual partners as her depiction of the women showed sparse white interiors, framed verses from the Koran, and completely robed women. This was a desexualized "Orient" showing harem women as clean and respectable. Most importantly, the authenticity of Browne's paintings could not be disputed as she was allowed entrance to the harem.

There were reports of some men gaining access to the harem by dressing up as women, as is reported by Griffin Vyse in his 1887 book, An Englishman in a Harem. Apparently Vyse's disguise was so effective that his male companions did not recognize him, and even flirted with him. There are no reports of Lewis dressing up to infiltrate the harem, so one may assume that his paintings are as imaginary as his contemporaries, although his familiarity with Cairo and Egyptian culture must have provided him with some knowledge of the harem.

A look back at the end of the eighteenth century helps to clarify the contact which England and France, especially, had with the East. In the late eighteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte was searching for a way to effectively attack England and weaken it. An attack across the English Channel was rejected from fear of the prowess of the British navy. Instead, Napoleon reasoned that by gaining control of Egypt, England would be cut off from its colonies in India. Napoleon was allied with the Turks, but when he stormed Alexandria in 1798, without notifying the Turks, tension was created. At that time, the Turks and Egypt were joined as the Ottoman Empire. By taking over Alexandria, Napoleon interrupted the flow of goods from Egypt to Constantinople and the Turks declared war on France. In the fall of 1800, Britain sent troops to help the Turks defeat the French.

While the French were in Cairo, the British troops, under General Abercromby, arrived at the Bay of Aboukir in 1801, took Rosetta, and advanced. As plague was spreading across mid and upper Egypt, the French left Cairo in June, 1801. After the French left, it became part of British policy to make sure that they did not come back. This resulted in the Peace of Amiens in 1802. The treaty required the British and the French to leave territories in the Mediterranean, and restore Turkish possessions as they were in 1798. England knew that Napoleon and the French would not give up so easily, and they remained in Malta despite the demands of the treaty. England also feared that the new government forces in Egypt, the Mamluk Beys, were not strong enough to hold off the French, so some English troops remained in Egypt as well. There followed several years of political insecurity in Egypt; the Turks wanted power from the Mamluk Beys, who in turn were rapidly declining and seeking British help. Mohamed Aly was the leader of the Albanian contingent of the Turks against the Beys. He put up a strong fight against the Mamluks, until the British began warring with Turkey and invaded Egypt in March, 1807. The British were defeated by Mohamed Aly's forces, and left Egypt in September. By 1811, Mohamed Aly had gained control of Egypt. In 1831, Mohamed Aly's son Ibrahim Pasha took control of Syria and held it for ten years. During that time he opened Syria to trade with the West.

Eventually something needed to be done about the division of power between the Turks in Constantinople and Mohamed Aly in Cairo. In 1840 Britain worked alongside Austria, Prussia, and Russia to restore Egypt to the Sultan. That same year the British sent troops to Syria to force Mohamed Ali and Ibrahim Pasha out; the British succeeded. In the following years, Egypt's economy and politics were tied more closely with those of Europe. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, cotton supplies from America to England were cut off; Egyptian cotton took its place and helped secure a place for Egypt in the English and the world economy. In the coming years, England and Egypt would have further involvement due to the building of the Suez Canal, the waterway between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

This brief background provides the context for England's interest in Egypt. One may assume that Lewis' interest in England stemmed from the involvement of the two countries politically and economically. As the "Orient" opened to Western trade and government, opportunities for travel and curiosity about foreign lands and peoples increased. A brief biography of Lewis follows, and then a discussion of his harem paintings.

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