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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

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Odalisque and Slave Painted by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Odalisque and Slave Painted by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (d. 1867) was a French Neoclassical artist who painted historical scenes and portraits and was a prominent contributor to the nineteenth-century artistic movement known as Orientalism. One of his favorite artistic subjects was the odalisque, a female servant living in an Ottoman household. An odalisque served a wealthy man’s wives and concubines; she was of low social status, but she could improve her station by becoming a concubine herself. This painting dates to 1842; Ingres completed an earlier version of it in 1839, which lacks the landscape background. Its principal feature is the nude odalisque lounging on a bed while listening to music played by a eunuch. This image projects a popular nineteenth-century Western interpretation of Middle Eastern culture, and it arguably reveals more about the European imagination than it does about the social reality of a private Middle Eastern residence. Informed by a fascination with the private spaces accessible only to women, the body of the sequestered Middle Eastern woman becomes a site for exotic fantasy in European art and literature. Alongside the prurient curiosity reflected in Ingres’ painting is the still-prevalent Western discourse of moral indignation directed primarily at Muslim men for their sexual objectification of women and denial of women’s rights and autonomy.  

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