By Marissa Johnson
In an oil painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) titled “Le bain maure” (The Moorish Bath), on first glance, the painting just appears to be a #black servant bathing a white woman. The piece from 1870 is displayed in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
This painting was presented as part of The Root’s partnership with Harvard University’s Hutchinson Center for African and #African American Research.
Upon closer observation, the viewer becomes aware of the juxtaposition of the skin tones of the black servant and the white female bather. The black servant is naked from the waist up, but her nakedness can be seen clearly. The white lady is what is known in the art world as “tastefully nude.” You can tell that though she has no clothes on, she still has dignity. Her body is positioned in a hunched over position so that the viewer cannot view her breasts or genitalia.
The black woman holds a gilded bowl of water. This is a scene from the Middle East, though the painter is Parisian. The bath is not a public bath house but in one of the baths of the Ottoman Ruling Class. In other words, the white woman painted is part of a harem and is one of an elite Ottoman man’s wives or concubines.
Sometimes, The Root reports, a woman can go from being a one night stand to getting a position as a concubine, which is a venerable one in Ottoman society. The Root then says “ bathing within the harem did not take place for pleasure, but, rather was a required form of ablution taken in preparation for sexual intercourse with the master.”
That’s fancy talk for the fact that the women were expected to be clean down there before they got to sleep with the Ottoman ruler.
Within the harem, a high ranking male official kept order in the complexly hierarchical harem. But, the fact remains that concubines and wives were essentially slaves just as the black servant depicted washing the white woman was a slave.
However, the painting is a bit historically inaccurate as the painter, Gérôme, is a Parisian who was living in a time that saw blacks as inferior and incapable of being equal to even a concubine. Black women could just as easily as white women become favored wives or concubines of Ottoman rulers.
This just proves that racism was mostly a western idea at the time.