Pierre Loti


By: Pr. Richard Berrong

When Julien Viaud published his first novel, Aziyadé, a story about, among other things, the relationship between a British naval officer and a Turkish odalisque (harem resident), in 1879, it was read by an audience that already had definite visual impressions of the Near East in general, and of harem women in particular. These visual impressions came, very specifically, from the works of several painters who, since the middle of the century, had created often very popular and frequently reproduced paintings of Oriental scenes. One way of approaching Aziyadé, therefore, is to see how it conformed to, and differed from, these artworks in its presentation of similar scenes and characters.

The title character of the novel, and the figure who most certainly most interested most of Viaud's original readers, is herself a young odalisque. When Harry Grant, a.k.a. Loti, first encounters her, and for a long time thereafter, the reader gets to see very little of her body. She is always wrapped in veils.

Here is their initial encounter.

I thought I was so completely alone that I experienced a strange impression upon perceiving, close to me, behind thick iron bars, the upper part of a human head, two large green eyes fixed on mine.

The eyebrows were brown, slightly knit, brought together to the point of touching each other; the expression of this look was a mix of energy and naivety; you might have called it the look of a child, it had so much freshness and youth.

The young woman who had these eyes rose, and showed down to her belt her body, which was wrapped in a Turkish style cape (féredjé) with long, stiff folds. The cape was made of green silk, decorated with silver embroidery. A white veil was wrapped carefully around her head, allowing only the forehead and the large eyes to appear. The pupils were very green, that sea green of years gone by sung about by the poets of the East. (Part I, Chapter IV)

What you see here is how little of Aziyadé herself the reader actually gets to see.

French art of the time had occasionally presented Eastern women in a similar, or almost similar, fashion. Here, for example, are two paintings by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) depicting odalisques in their harem. The location here is Algeria, but how much if any distinction a nineteenth century French reader made between an Algerian harem and a Turkish harem it would be hard to say.

We don't think of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) as an orientalist, but he, too, did a depiction of an odalisque.

Yes, she looks much more like one of Renoir's nineteenth century French women than a Turkish harem dweller:)

Far more often, however, the odalisque had been presented with little or no apparel. Indeed, the naked odalisque stretched out on her divan had been a standard genre painting for several centuries by the time of Viaud's novel. Sticking to France in the nineteenth century, one might note the famous foray into the genre by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).

What one should note here is that all these odalisques have in common a langourousness, a lack of energy, that is often linked to a heightened voluptuousness. Let us go back and look at each of the odalisques in question individually.

The three women in Delacroix's first painting, of 1834, are certainly langorous, though there is more than an element of voluptuousness in the one on the left. As Stephen F. Eisenman has written, "The three harem women . . . are the embodiment of the European masculinist image of Middle Eastern and North African people as sensual and irrational" (Nineteenth Century Art [London: Thames and Hudson, 1994] 202).

The same is true of the second, undated Delacroix tableau.

The Renoir odalique's lack of energy and perhaps related voluptuousness (idle hands are the devil's playground, etc.) is obvious from the painting as we presented it above. Just look at her face! She is clearly thinking about something a little more exciting than her income tax:)

Ingres' odalisque would seem to be the most obvious of them all. If she has not just had sex, or at least fantasized about it, I can't read a face. And her luxuriously outstretched body is not exactly bristling with energy. (Yes, I could have reduced the image somewhat so that it would all appear on your screen at once, but in this case, better you should scroll slowly over her outstretched, inviting form, to realize the full effect of the painting:) [Click to see the enlargment]

In this sense, Viaud's title character was a very clear departure from the image of the odalisque that the art of the time had created. Though we see almost nothing of her, remember that she is introduced to us upon her first appearance with the qualities of "energy," "naivety," and "freshness." These are, if anything, the very opposites of the qualities suggested by the paintings just viewed. Aziyadé is not just, or primarily, a creature of sensuality, as her artistic predecessors had been.

The Orient was given a very definite visual image in France during the second half of the nineteenth century with the very popular paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Readers of Aziyadé would most certainly have had his images in mind when reading Viaud's tale. Though not specifically an odalisque, here is one of his paintings of a young Arab girl.

This certainly comes closer to the "freshness and youth" of which Viaud's text speaks, though not of the "energy."

Gérôme also did a series of paintings of almehs, Eastern dancing women. Though not odalisques, they are worth noting for their dress, as it must have shaped Viaud's readers' notions of "Eastern women."

Not all Orientalist painting focused on odalisques, however, or even on women. In Part IV, Chapter XX, of Aziyadé, Viaud describes a young Turk who suddenly in a moment of extasy claims to see Allah. Instances of what Western Europe saw as religious extremism were also portrayed in the art of the time. Here is Gérôme's depiction of a dervish in a transe.

Two things are worth noting here.

First, as you can see in this close-up, the dervish, though a man, appears at least sexually ambiguous, both because of his dress and because of the extatic expression on his face.

This very much coincides with Viaud's depiction of the third main character in Aziyadé, Samuel, Loti's native friend, who though strong and masculine in appearance, also has soft, gentle, to the West feminine qualities.

Second, Viaud's depiction of the exstatic oulema in Part IV, Chapter XX, lacks any of the negativity that such a subject might have provoked among self-styled "rational" Frenchmen. Here is the passage in question:

In the middle of the group [of oulemas], a young man was pointing to heaven, a young man who had an admirable mystic head. The white turban of the oulemas surrounded his handsome, wide forehead, his face was pale, his beard and his large eyes were black like ebony.

He was pointing up above at an invisible point, he was looking with exstasy into the depths of the blue heaven and saying:

"There is God! Everyone, look! I see Allah! I see the Eternal One!"

And we ran, Achmet and myself, like the crowd, close to the oulema who saw Allah.
(Part IV, Chapter XX)

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  • [Click on images to enlarge]
  • Algerian Women in their Chamber - 1834
    Algerian Women in their Chamber - 1834
  • Women of Algiers
    Women of Algiers
  • Odalisque
  • Odalisque with a Slave - 1840
    Odalisque with a Slave - 1840
  • Dance of the Almeh
    Dance of the Almeh
  • The Almeh
    The Almeh
  • Almehs Playing Chess in a Cafe
    Almehs Playing Chess in a Cafe
  • The Whirling Dervishes
    The Whirling Dervishes
  • The Whirling Dervishes


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