Odalisques are one of the best-known representations of eastern women. During the 19th century with the artistic movement known as Orientalism, the odalisques became a common figure especially in erotic paintings.
These painters depicted the odalisques as women of exotic beauty, half-naked and in sensual poses. Probably the first image that comes to our mind is La Grand Odalisque by Ingres or one of the many painted by Matisse.
Even though to our western minds, the image of an odalisque refers to a harem concubine, in its origin, the Turkish odalik was, actually, a female attendant (chambermaid) in the Turkish seraglio, particularly the court maids in the household of the Ottoman sultan.
The Turkish odalik
An odalik was a servant not of the man of the household, but a personal chambermaid of his concubines and wives. They were usually slaves, that had been given as gifts to the sultan by wealthy men. In general, they weren’t seen by the sultan as they remained under the direct supervision of his mother, the Valide Sultan. The odaliks were ranked at the bottom of the social stratification of a harem.
Although an odalisque could become a concubine if she was extraordinary beautiful or had special talents in singing or dancing, in this case she would be trained as a possible concubine. If selected, an odalik trained as a court lady would serve the sultan sexually, only after this sexual contact she would change her status becoming thenceforth one of the consorts of the sultan.
In contrast to European depictions, the odalisques wore more androgynous clothes, their robes resembling those for male pages of the palace. According to the book Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries by Gülru Necipoğlu the conditions of the Ottoman harem didn’t resemble the bordello of European imagination.
Odalisques in art
In the History of Art, the odalisques are often considered as a celebration of the female body. For a long time, artists weren’t allowed to paint female nudes except in mythological and some biblical scenes. The tension between the sacred and the profane has always existed. More than this, are paintings where the only important thing is the sensuality of the female body. The woman in them is just an object to satisfy the sexual gaze of male viewers.
The depictions of Odalisques in European paintings are an important part of the Orientalism movement of the 19th century. This movement were present not only in visual arts, but also in literature and music. The Orientalism is often defined as the imitation or depiction of aspects of the Eastern culture, usually made by western artists.
After the 19th century, the exoticism of eastern culture kept fascinating many artists and it is easy to find many depictions of odalisques in the 20th century too.
It is less common to find an odalisque depicted by women artists. As they usually are painted to male public, however in my research, I could find two women artists that made depictions of odalisques.
- The word “odalisque” came to English from French, its origin is in the Turkish word “odalik” which means exactly “chambermaid” (oda = chamber, room).