Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Le bain maure (“The Moorish Bath”), circa 1870. Oil on canvas, 58 by 41.3 cm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Within the intimate confines of a sumptuous harem bath, two women engage in a ritual of purification unfamiliar to Western eyes.

A black servant woman strains to balance a large brass basin against one thigh. The dusky tone of her skin plays off the brilliant yellow of her kerchief and the richly worked robe falling from her waist. She prepares to pour water over the delicately curved back of a young white woman seated on the tiled bench before her. The bather’s skin glows with almost incandescent brilliance against the light filtering from the ceiling high above.

The two women’s bodies form a marked study in contrasts, brought out not only by the dramatic opposition of their skin color but also by the marked differences in their postures. The black servant embodies the active, open stance required by her work, while her mistress sits motionless, her body drawn together as she awaits the fall of the water across her back.

Through the artifice of the painter, the white bather’s body advances toward the viewer, transformed into a fetish of inaccessible beauty. The brilliantly colored robe hanging from the cornice above further states her exalted status. The prominence given to the white bather underscores the differing statuses of these women as well as the subtle bond that unites them. Their relationship raises many tantalizing issues concerning race, sexual politics and personal empowerment.

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As the title of this immaculately rendered jewel of a painting suggests, the scene takes place in the Middle East. Though the term “Moorish” historically refers to the region of Islamic Spain and Morocco to its south, in this painting the rubric is expanded to take in the rich cultures lying within the orbit of the Ottoman Empire far to the east.

This privileged view of secluded luxury was painted, however, not in Istanbul or Cairo but within the Parisian studio of the prominent French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. One of his great interests had been the art and life of lands lying in the eastward course of European expansion along the North African coast.

In both method and subject, Gérôme embodied the aims of a large cadre of European artist-travelers known as Orientalists. His primary objective was to present to the European eye the essence of Middle Eastern life in a highly aestheticized, consumable form. The great appeal of his subjects hinged on the convincing feeling of privileged access to a world radically different from the increasingly industrialized culture of Europe.

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The space seen here is not a public bath like the one actually sketched on the spot, and later painted, by Gérôme in Istanbul but is instead reserved for a unique class of women. As in the many other versions of this theme painted by the artist over the next 30 years of his career, the lavishly tiled bath forms part of the enclosed quarters exclusively reserved for women living in households maintained by members of the ruling class of the Ottoman Empire.

Generally described as the harem, these suites of rooms housed a unique, hierarchically arranged society of wives and concubines retained by high-ranking men within the administrative structure of the empire. The term “harem” derives from the Arabic word “haram,” meaning “forbidden,” or “kept safe.” The custom of keeping such harems came from the grandest example of all, the harem of the Ottoman sultan.

Within this enclosed world, a precisely established order of prestige was held by each woman based on her relationship to the owner of the harem. Some had achieved the status of wife—favored for their particular qualities of sophistication and beauty—and solidified it by providing sons and heirs to the family line. Other women held the rank of concubine: not a wife, but a woman who may have entered into intimate relations with her master only once and was then allotted a minor but honorable place in the harem.

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Given this basic understanding of harem society, the role of the bath within the lives of these women comes into better focus. Bathing within the harem did not take place solely for pleasure but, rather, was a required form of ablution taken in preparation for sexual intercourse with the master. The black woman thus plays her own part in a vital function of the harem, one that extends far beyond the confines of the bathing hall.

In reality, the two women may well have shared similarly compromised lives. Both may have entered the harem as slaves supplied by the vast network of trade routes crisscrossing large regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia Minor. The black woman may have been taken from the African interior, to be sold, perhaps several times, in marketplaces ranging from Zanzibar to Istanbul.

The highly prized pearly whiteness of the bather, on the other hand, suggests her origin in Circassia, a mountainous area of the Caucasus well to the north of Turkey. The black woman performs her role as an odalisque, a term derived from Turkish meaning “servant of the chamber.” Ironically, when installed within the European cult of Orientalism, the original meaning of the term came to refer not to the servant but to her erotically posed white mistress.

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Other than their common enslaved condition, the two women occupy quite different places within harem society, at least according to Gérôme’s myopic distillation of this secluded environment. In his view, their relationship could never be reversed. In reality, however, the owner of a harem may quite likely have chosen a black woman as a concubine or even a favored wife.

The black female presence within the harem was complemented by an elite corps of black men who served it in various ways. The Orientalists’ fascination with the mysterious and forbidden was piqued by the imposing figure of a heavily armed black guard standing watch by the harem gate. All men except the owner were forbidden to enter the female quarters. The sole exception was a high-ranking court functionary charged with keeping order within the complex and often politically volatile environment of the harem.

The position of the sexually neutered chief eunuch was often given to black men. In the imperial harem of the Ottoman sultans in Istanbul, the number of black eunuchs eventually rose to more than 1,000 by the late 16th century. The position of the Kizlar Agha, or “lord of the slave women,” continued to be exclusively occupied by the chief black eunuch until the downfall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.

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Although the role of the black servant woman in Gérôme’s painting may seem merely ancillary, her presence in the harem bath in fact serves as a reminder of the prominent place occupied by African people within the patriarchal ruling structure of the Oriental court. The harem offered one of the greatest opportunities for advancement open to black males during the Ottoman period. It should come as no surprise, then, that their black sisters also navigated their own path to success within the shifting alliances and rivalries of this fabled but nearly impenetrable world.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.