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An Egyptian Fellah Woman with her Baby
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sjohnson's picture

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Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann's An Egyptian Fellah Woman with her Baby shows just how many strings you can pull when your friend is a princess.

When the artist was a portraitist to the Danish royal family, she became friends with Princess Alexandra, who wrote letters for her to carry around to do research in Cairo and Turkey. The Orientalism market was booming, and Jerichau-Baumann had the opportunity to penetrate the inner folds of the harems where only one man was allowed to go. Because none of these men were European artists, there was a huge demand to know what the harems were actually like, so Jerichau-Baumann offered an exclusive story that you could hang on your wall.

The business of slavery, unfortunately, still thrives today, in part, because it excites some people's desires and tries to convert other people into objects. Slavery excited Jerichau-Baumann, especially because the women, for social and Biblical reasons, had never seen paintings of people and, she writes, "primitively" touched the jewelry on the surface of the paintings, thinking it was real jewelry, which sounds like a made-up story if I ever heard one, but I don't remember being there. Another thing that excited her, in Istanbul, was that she could get two slaves in the harem to hold her paintings for her during their gallery showing for the princess as if slavery wasn't humiliating enough already. These are my "live easels," Jerichau-Baumann laughed.

Legend has it that the woman in An Egyptian Fellah Woman with her Baby is a farmer, and she is selling her pottery near Giza, and that explains why the baby and mother are chillin' by the ancient ruins. But I turn up an eyebrow at that story: it doesn't look like that kind of painting. Mary Roberts writes about how Jerichau-Baumann collapsed and played with the class distinctions between the women of the marketplace and those of the harem. I don't know, but it looks like the artist transposed her harem subject onto a ruin background. Then, what's a baby doing in a harem? Well, harem stuff does result in babies, and they grow up with a direct view of it. Even in the U.S. a generation later, children like Richard Pryor and James Brown grew up in brothels, and it influenced them, and us, as much as it damaged them. The harem is one of those institutions that has been around for thousands of years but is specifically connected to the Biblical prohibition on adultery. The purpose of a harem is to prevent unwanted pregnancies, as all of the women are secluded for the sake of the same man. One central Biblical purpose of the prohibition on adultery is to prevent the possibility of a brother and sister marrying each other, which was commonplace in societies with unrestricted sex. If the Victorian standard of one man and one woman is the best system, why was there such an enormous market for Orientalism then, and for pornography and prostitution today?

Sources

Sources

  1. Bales, Kevin, and Ron Soodalter. The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
  2. von Folsach, Birgitte. By the Light of the Crescent Moon: Images of the Near East in Danish Art and Literature, 1800-1875. Copenhagen: David Collection, 1996.
  3. Helland, Janice. Local/Global: Women Artists in the Nineteenth Century. London: Routledge, 2017.