The Man Who Entered a Harem – Avenue Road

Painter Carl Haag was born in April 1820 at Erlangen, Bavaria. Having spent five months in Brussels, he travelled to London in April 1847. When Queen Victoria was made aware of his work, she invited him to spend six weeks at Balmoral where he produced a number of watercolours. Knowing the art market and responding to British taste, Haag travelled extensively in Egypt (together with Frederick Goodall), Jerusalem, Oman, Palmyra, and became a popular painter of Eastern themes. He settled in London. Having married in 1866, he added an oriental studio on top of a newly built four storey mansion which he named Ida Villa (after his wife) at no. 7 Lyndhurst Road, Hampstead. In 1883 a reporter of the Art Journal visited the artist. He left the studio overwhelmed by a multiplicity of exotic paraphernalia that ranged from Persian rugs and tapestries from Palmyra to Turkish swords and Nubian camel saddles.


Orientalism was a Franco-British obsession which manifested itself in literature, painting, architecture, and in music. The Orient had attracted European writers and artists from the Renaissance onwards, but nineteenth century fascination with the domain was unprecedented. On 1 July 1798, Napoleon landed in Egypt and proceeded to invade the country. The occupation lasted until 1801. Some 150 scholars and scientists were instructed to execute a comprehensive study of the country. Topographical surveys were carried out, animals and plants studied, minerals classified, and local skills scrutinized. The total set of spectacular publications contained 837 engravings which captured Egyptian civilization from every vantage point. Never before had a single country inspired such a monumental scientific and editorial effort. The research made a real impact on French art and architecture (dominating the Empire Style), inciting a vogue for all things Egyptian. Napoleon also employed court painters such as Antoine-Jean Gros to create striking images of him in action.


The Egyptian campaign, steamboat travel in the 1830s, the opening of the Suez Canal, the growth of international railway travel, together with Anglo-French political and commercial involvement in the Ottoman Empire, advanced the passion for the Orient over a period of time. It made the East a focus of artistic and literary interest and the harem was a defining symbol of Oriental imagery. Background information however was scarce. One of the first Western accounts of harem life was recorded by Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman sultan’s court. She spent time in Constantinople and strived to get to know Ottoman women and deliver dispatches from their private world. Her collected letters were published in 1763 and sparked interest for their eyewitness insights into Turkish society. Her descriptions influenced the work of subsequent Orientalist painters and writers.

To Europeans, the Middle East was a region of luxuriance and forbidden pleasures. Orientalism was a fantasy, an escape into the exotic and mysterious, an escapade into a domain of colour set against an ever darkening Western world. In 1877, five years after the author’s death, Georges Charpentier published Théophile Gautier’s L’Orient, voyages et voyageurs. In these accounts, the East is an outlandish ideal with emotional significance because it served the author as an alternative to European culture. His writing was a protest against contemporary goose-cackle about progress, a rejection of the ‘Americanization’ of society, and – by implication – a nostalgic memory of what old Paris used to be before Baron Haussmann took up the sledgehammer. Significantly, the author created his Oriental stories long before he had ever set foot in the region.

Orientalism coincided with a quest for sexual liberation. This erotic element was typified by the literary efforts of Richard Francis Burton. As a soldier stationed in India, he learned Arabic and immersed himself in Islam. In 1853, disguised as a pilgrim, he made the dangerous trek to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. He published a description of his journey in a three-volume book that became an immediate sensation in England. Burton was excited by Eastern erotica. He translated and printed the Kama Sutra (1883) and The Perfumed Garden (1886), and published a splendid edition of the Arabian Nights (1885) which still stands unchallenged. Burton’s success had been prepared by Edward FitzGerald’s translations of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (1859) which achieved astonishing popularity during the Victorian era.

France was the birthplace of Orientalist painting. The revolt against the stifling dominance of academic art shifted the attention from Rome towards the East. Disenchanted with artistic developments at home, Delacroix travelled to Morocco and Algeria in 1832. He returned to Paris to present Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement at the 1834 Salon, although he had been forced to use French models because western men were forbidden to enter the harem. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres never travelled to the East. In 1862 – an old man by then – he completed Le bain Turc, an oil painting depicting a group of women in the bath of a harem.

The Turkish Bath, 7th October 1859

The sexualised style is typical. Denied entrance to seraglios and lacking authentic accounts, artists took a leap of the imagination to create opulent interiors in which sex slaves and concubines posed in the nude. Flights of erotic fancy brushed aside inhibitions. In 1872 Pierre-Auguste Renoir completed Intérieur de harem à Montmartre (Parisiennes habillées algériennes). It was painted in homage to Delacroix, the ‘sultan of Orientalism’, but rejected for entry to the 1872 Salon. The title of the picture acknowledged the artificial nature of much Orientalist painting by making it clear that these were Parisian women in costume (Renoir did not visit Algeria until 1881).

One aspect of the lure of the East was the cult of Cairo. Painters and poets were obsessed with the unhurried serenity of an old city that seemed far removed from the urban disquiets of Western civilization. They communicated the charm of the place rather than give a precise indication of topography. It was the atmosphere and ambience that attracted artists to Cairo where – in excitable male imagination – at every step one may stumble upon a harem enveloped in the scent of roses and set amongst sycamore figs.


John Frederick Lewis spent a year in Constantinople and most of the 1840s in Cairo. Famously, Thackeray visited the artist at his studio there. In his Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846) he described the painter as a languid lotus-eater who was living a ‘dreamy, lazy, hazy, tobaccofied life’. Once back in Britain, Lewis created a series of harem and bazaar scenes that were a huge success. In 1850 he exhibited his watercolour The Harem at the Old Water-Colour Society’s rooms in Pall Mall which set the tone for his later images. From his studio at Walton-on-Thames he produced one Oriental scene after another. Having never seen the traditional women’s quarters, his settings were those of the grand mansion he had once occupied in Cairo’s Europeanised Esbekieh district. His unveiled women were models who made a living out of posing for northern artists. Lewis and fellow painters such as William Holman Hunt, Frederic Leighton, or David Wilkie, relied on precise decors to convince the public of the authenticity of their work. If the facts were correct, then fantasy could take flight. The harem was perceived as an epitome of Oriental omnipotence, a male’s erotic dream of multiple wives and numerous sex slaves. To the contemporary eye most of these scenes are (at best) alluring still-lifes, but in the heated Victorian mind these images were loaded with erotic suspense and sexual promise.

The Siesta 1876 John Frederick Lewis 1805-1876 Purchased 1921 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03594

In 1857 Lewis completed yet another Hhareem Life. The painting depicts a scene in which two women watch a cat picking apart a bouquet of feathers. The domestic setting is vaguely suggestive and quietly erotic – the location is supposed to be Constantinople, but it could just as well be Hampstead or Highgate. After all, the artist used his wife as a model without attempting to hide her British features.


French painters were less inhibited than their Victorian colleagues. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s smoke-filled images are voluptuous and seductive. Nude women are smoking a hookah or lounging lustfully bored at a pool side as can be seen in La grande piscine de Brousse (1885) which depicts a bath in the Turkish town of Bursa. His images may be less restrained, but Gérôme was just as ignorant about harem life as were the British painters. Western men were strictly forbidden to enter the female quarters. Stereotyping became inevitable.


The name of Félicien-César David is associated with the introduction of Oriental exoticism into music. Like many early Romantics in France he joined the socialist brotherhood of the Saint-Simonians and put music to the utopian vision of a New Christianity. From 1833 to 1835 he was in the Middle East having embarked with Barthélemy Prosper [Père] Enfantin and his followers on a voyage to Egypt to realise their utopia in the Mediterranean basin. During their short stay, Saint-Simonians were involved in a number of engineering projects, including the construction of Nile barrages, railways, and canals. In his later music, David incorporated recollections of the music he had heard Cairo and elsewhere. In 1844 he produced his symphonic ode Le Désert, an evocative work that became a sensation and foreshadowed the Orientalism of Bizet’s Djamileh (1882) or Delibes’s Lakmé (1883), and other Romantic operas. Verdi’s Aida was commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt and first performed in Cairo in 1871. The house where the opera was staged was built under the same ruler and faced the modernised city. The opera’s storyline represents an imagined Egyptian past. Ironically, performance of the opera marked the opening of the Suez Canal which connected imperial Europe with its colonies. Since the 1860s, developers had been engaged to regularise Cairo’s network of streets, create avenues, and establish public squares. Only remnants of the pre-industrial city survived. To celebrate technological achievements, a non-existent romanticised background was chosen as setting for the opera. In every aspect, Orientalism was a false statement – fake and fancy.

Imaginary harems were created metropolitan writing rooms and studios. Composers constructed narratives in sound in which the figure of Scheherazade came to dominate. Some artists travelled to Constantinople or Cairo, others never did. No one, not a single artist was permitted to enter into the private quarters of an Oriental harem – with one exception. Violinist August Wilhelmj was born on 21 September 1845 in Usingen, Hesse. A prodigy (Franz Liszt called him the ‘future Paganini’), he gave his first concert at the age of eight in Wiesbaden. He began his concert career in 1865, and eventually made a number of world tours. A personal friend of Richard Wagner, he led the violins at the première of Der Ring des Niebelungen in Bayreuth in 1876. He became famous for his arrangement of the air from J.S. Bach’s orchestral Suite in D major, known as the ‘Air on the G String’. His re-orchestration of Paganini’s violin concerto in 1882 was a major contribution to the pantheon of works for the violin. From 1894 he was a Professor of violin at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He also took an active interest in the technique of violin-making. His home at Avenue Road, St John’s Wood, was a museum of instruments. Wilhelmj owned a 1725 Stradivarius which later came to be known by his name. During his lifetime he was a legendary performer.

In 1885, he received what must have been an astonishing invitation from Abdul Hamid II. He was requested to travel to Constantinople and play for the ladies of the Sultan’s harem. It has not been reported what this female audience made of the performance by this tall, broad-shouldered figure with a massive forehead surrounded by long and wavy hair (like a Greek statue according to contemporary sources), but the Sultan was impressed. He decorated the maestro with the knightly Order of the Medjidie and presented him with diamonds. After decades of European devotion to the Orient and a multitude of suggestive scenes in art and literature, the virtuoso who entered the Sultan’s harem must have been the most envied man in the Western world.