Intimate Outsiders

The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature

Intimate Outsiders


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Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 39 illustrations (incl. 32 in color) Published: December 2007

Author: Mary Roberts

Art and Visual Culture > Art History, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

Until now, the notion of a cross-cultural dialogue has not figured in the analysis of harem paintings, largely because the Western fantasy of the harem has been seen as the archetype for Western appropriation of the Orient. In Intimate Outsiders, the art historian Mary Roberts brings to light a body of harem imagery that was created through a dynamic process of cultural exchange. Roberts focuses on images produced by nineteenth-century European artists and writers who were granted access to harems in the urban centers of Istanbul and Cairo. As invited guests, these Europeans were “intimate outsiders” within the women’s quarters of elite Ottoman households. At the same time, elite Ottoman women were offered intimate access to European culture through their contact with these foreign travelers.

Roberts draws on a range of sources, including paintings, photographs, and travelogues discovered in archives in Britain, Turkey, Egypt, and Denmark. She rethinks the influential harem works of the realist painter John Frederick Lewis, a British artist living in Cairo during the 1840s, whose works were granted an authoritative status by his British public despite the actual limits of his insider knowledge. Unlike Lewis, British women were able to visit Ottoman harems, and from the mid-nineteenth century on they did so in droves. Writing about their experiences in published travelogues, they undermined the idea that harems were the subject only of male fantasies. The elite Ottoman women who orchestrated these visits often challenged their guests’ misapprehensions about harem life, and a number of them exercised power as patrons, commissioning portraits from European artists. Their roles as art patrons defy the Western idea of the harem woman as passive odalisque.


“[Roberts] shows how Ottoman women took an active part in [the] cultural exchange with Western women and technologies for their own purposes and how these relations influenced Western women. This study is an important contribution for Middle Eastern studies in general, and Ottoman studies, in particular as well as women’s studies, cross-cultural studies and art history.” — Rachel Simon, Digest of Middle East Studies

“Mary Roberts’s book marks an important turn in the study of representations of the harem in both visual and written texts. . . . Mary Roberts is a rare scholar, one who ably analyzes western and eastern art, when the discipline of art history has generally been confined to narrower (hemi-)spheres of expertise. Roberts’s book bridges the gap in scholarship about the Orientalists and the Ottomans. She writes with real depth and clarity informed by new methodologies that guide but never tyrannize her content. All this comes in a book format that is well-organized, accessible, affordable - and a fascinating read.” — Joan DelPlato, Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

“Providing an overview of westernization in the empire and the growing interest in European visual culture through the privacy of harem interior, Mary Roberts’s Intimate Outsiders sets an example for interdisciplinary studies. . .” — Günsel Renda, International Journal of Turkish Studies

“Roberts formulates a cogent argument about the subtle, nuanced relationship between various Ottoman elites and their European bourgeois interlocutors, examining a series of case studies ranging from famous British orientalist paintings by John Frederick Lewis, to British women’s travelogues, to honorific portraits commissioned by elite Ottoman women. . . . Roberts’s intervention is undoubtedly a crucial and useful one, opening up the study of orientalism to acknowledge a syncretic and collaborative exchange between ‘West’ and ‘East.’” — Amira Jarmakani, Journal of the History of Sexuality

“Roberts hits all the important marks, and hits them well: political agency; gender roles; the ways in which the harem both fostered and smothered particular types of female power; the ways in which the encounter between westerner and oriental provided the latter an occasion to orchestrate what it was that was on display. All in and of themselves important–and complicated–questions, ones that too often have been treated superficially or unimaginatively. Here we get them all, with care and subtlety–and in a package that makes for surprisingly enjoyable reading.” — K. E. Fleming, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

“Roberts offers a three-part, truly interdisciplinary and innovative journey over complicated terrain, but it’s a smooth enjoyable read.” — Maree Boyce, M/C Reviews

“Roberts offers her readers a nuanced take on broader questions of gender, power and imagery. . . . Intimate Outsiders opens up an exciting new field of inquiry.” — Ruth A. Miller, European History Quarterly

“Roberts’ elegant book is the first to offer an extensive critical analysis of artists at work in the harem. Well written, incorporating vivid description too rarely associated with successful academic writing, its verbal imagery helps to give substance to those artists Roberts scrutinizes, while reined in to serve her analyses. . . . This volume is a remarkable contribution to the scholarly literature on Orientalism. . . . Essential. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers.” — J. E. Housefield, Choice

“The intimacy Roberts describes in this excellent book is exciting because it provides an alternative to the distancing and empowering notion of orientalism advocated by Said. . . . The stories told in Intimate Outsiders form a significant contribution to the history of painting in nineteenth-century Istanbul, and to the history of international networks among women of privileged social classes. What else they might mean will depend on what, if anything, is able to succeed ‘orientalism’ as a tool for the political analysis of global culture.” — Nicholas Tromans, Art History

“Using an impressive range of archival resources, Intimate Outsiders is a lucid, nuanced and engaging interdisciplinary study of gendered spectatorship, cross-cultural encounters and indigenous agency in nineteenth-century Istanbul and Cairo. Roberts’s work positions itself authoritatively among feminist art historical and literary studies of Orientalism and should be considered an essential read for anyone interested in the field.” — Melanie Vandenbrouck-Przybylski, Studies in Travel Writing

“This is an outstanding example of a truly interdisciplinary study, integrating painting, photography, travel narrative, and especially harem portraiture. Mary Roberts describes encounters between women—both British travelers and the women of Istanbul and Cairo harems—in a refreshing, innovative analysis of the historical and imaginary workings of harem imagery as forms of cross-cultural exchanges and interactions.” — Julie F. Codell, editor of Imperial Co-Histories: National Identities and the British and Colonial Press

“Transforming debates about Orientalism, gender, and cultural and political agency, Mary Roberts writes with beguiling simplicity about complicated subjects, taking her readers through a potentially bewildering maze of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural material with a voice both authoritative and accessible.” — Reina Lewis, author of Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel, and the Ottoman Harem


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Mary Roberts is the John Schaeffer Associate Professor in British Art at the University of Sydney. She is a coeditor of Orientalism’s Interlocutors: Painting, Architecture, Photography, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Intimate Outsiders 1

Part 1: John Frederick Lewis's Harem Paintings

Chapter One. The Languid Lotus-Eater 19

Chapter Two. "Mr. Lewis's Oriental paradises" 38

Part 2: British Women's Travelogues

Chapter Three. Pleasures in Detail 59

Chapter Four. Being Seen 80

Chapter Five. Sartorial Adventures and Satiric Narratives 92

Part 3: Harem Portraiture

Chapter Six. The Politics of Portraiture behind the Veil 109

Chapter Seven. Oriental Dreams 128

Epilogue 150

Notes 157

Selected Bibliography 177

Index 187
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3967-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3956-4
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