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Odalisques blog

The Female Slave Market in Constantinople (1 Mar)
From the slave market to the sultan's bedchamber (17 Feb)
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"Idle Moments" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1875
"Moorish Interior" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman
"The Nubian Storyteller in the Harem" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman
"Nefeeseh" by R.J.Lane
"The Almee" by Gunnar Berndtson
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© Tanos
1997-2014

Harem Punishments

Posted by Tanos on Fri 13 Jul 12, 10:44 PM

Paintings of eastern subjects, especially harems and female slaves, were very popular in the 19th century and many of them had BDSM undercurrents. These paintings were part of a shared fantasy world of Orientalism that existed in western art and literature which could be violent and pitiless. But in this world the harems were populated by pliant submissive beauties and there was almost a conspiracy of silence in the images to pretend that disobedience was unthinkable and that the slaves were all either happy with their captivity or resigned to it. Here I've tried to collect some of the exceptions, showing when punishments were meted out.

I've written about An Intercepted Correspondence before, and it shows a harem girl who has been exchanging messages with a lover using the "language of flowers" in which different flowers signify different sentiments. She's led before her master as he sits surrounded by his other women, as her accuser shows the offending bunch of flowers. As with his other paintings, J.F. Lewis's 1869 scene is quite light hearted and this has led some people to suggest it may just represent a crush on another female member of the harem rather than betraying her master with another man. The girl's coy expression certainly doesn't suggest someone who is about to be executed for her disloyalty. Lewis had spent the 1840s residing in Cairo with his own household of servants and perhaps slaves in the house that lived on in these paintings he later created in England. So he had some knowledge of this world, and perhaps more understanding of the emotional implications of executing the girl who pours your coffee every morning just because she's been caught flirting with a delivery boy.

At the other end of the spectrum is this engraving of Fragonard's "Vengeance" from 1830, in which a woman previously shown in the arms of a French soldier is killed by her master - you can just see the wound from his knife under her left breast, and in the background the soldier is being killed by a group of men. The woman's nakedness is displayed for the viewer's pleasure and her master watches her last breaths with folded arms, brooding about something: her betrayal? his damaged honour? the loss of a woman he enjoyed? or loved?

Whatever the motivation, more images of violence are very hard to find amongst Orientalist paintings of harems and women, especially as we move further into the 19th century. Orientalist images of violence against men continue, though, as you can see in this "Summary Execution" by Regnault of 1870. The paintings are peppered with more of those sharp, cold scimitars that the killer is cleaning on his robe here, so perhaps the implicit threat of them is enough - including all the ones carried by eunuchs around the painted harems.

This is even more striking because the written foundation of much of Orientalism was the "Thousand and One Nights" or "Arabian Nights" which is littered with disobedient women suffering corporal or capital punishment. And right from the start of the written obsession with the inner workings of the harems or "seraglios", physical discipline is stressed, as we can see in Ottaviano Bon's account in its highly popular 17th century English translation:

The women of the Seraglio are punished for their faults very severely, and extreamly beaten by their overseers; and if they prove disobedient, incorrigible, and insolent, they are by the king's order, and express command, turned out and sent into the old Seraglio, as being utterly rejected and cast off, and the best part of what they have is taken from them: but if they shall be found culpable of witchcraft, or any such like abomination; then they are bound hand and foot, and put into a sack, and in the night cast into the sea. So that by all means it behoveth them to be very careful and obedient, and to contain themselves within the bounds of honesty and good behaviour, if they mean to prosper, and come to a good end.

In fact this idea of being tied in a sack and drowned recurs, and Sultan Ibrahim "the Mad" allegedly dispatched 280 women this way in one night out of paranoia that some had been unfaithful. Narrative painters generally liked images of the macabre and the horrific, but these sacks don't make an appearance. The closest is this painting of "The Prisoner" by Gerome in 1861, in which a prisoner lays rather stiffly in a rowing boat with his wrists in wooden stocks, ready to drown if he's tipped out of the boat.

As Bon suggested, being discarded or even sold can be a severe punishment in itself and Fernand-Anne Cormon's "Favorite Dechue" plays on this theme and also toys with the idea of capital punishment. We see a former favourite who has lost her position having a last audience with her master. She has been led in by a eunuch whose fist grips the end of a blue sash tied around her waist, and is in the process of begging the other slave to intercede on her behalf, pressing her face to her foot as she pleads. Perhaps similar begging at her master's feet has already failed? Why is all this happening though? "Favorite Dechue" is often translated as "The Deposed Favourite" but "dechue" really means "fallen", as in "Ange dechu" - a "Fallen Angel". This suggests he's not just bored with her, but that she has done something terribly wrong and this is all a punishment. Perhaps that axe in the eunuch's hand isn't just a threat and symbol of authority?

Has she been unfaithful, or maybe she's committed some crime against her rival and is begging forgiveness? If we have a closer look at the other's face, she looks lost in thought and staring into the distance, even into the future. Will she find herself in this position one day if harem politics go against her? Nevertheless she continues to do her duty and fan her master, because she's going nowhere for now: everyone else has shoes of some form but she is being kept very barefoot.

Going back to the image we started with, in Franz Eisenhut's "Before Punishment" a guard is keeping watch over a double pair of ankle stocks which holds two naked harem slaves laid out on a carpet. The far one, who is required to maintain a face-down orientation by the stocks, is olive skinned and sleeping peacefully on a cushion - in fact, she has that serene look that bound submisives get when feeling valued and owned; but her ivory-skinned companion, who has no choice but to lie on her back, is arching her back over a bolster and looking towards the guard, who dutifully looks away. We can't tell whether the morning will bring his sharp, cold sword down on their necks out in a courtyard, or whether their naked feet will be whipped, or whether a night in the stocks is all the punishment that was required. It's clear whatever suffering they're subject to is for the viewer's pleasure, however, with that potent mixture of nakedness, sex, restraint and the possibility of pain that fuels so many BDSM fantasies and realities.

Alongside Orientalist paintings, book illustrations also give some visual hints of harem punishments, and this image from the Arabian Nights in 1895 foreshadows the increasingly explicit pornographic literature and imagery that developed during the 20th century, eventually leading to harem girls being whipped in mainstream film and TV.

Edited Sat 14 Jul 12, 8:25 AM