The Oriental Hamam

After the Bath by Jean Léone Gérôme

After the Bath by Jean Léone Gérôme

Bath scenes were a very popular imagery in Orientalist paintings with beautiful semi nude maidens going about cleansing routines while featured in elaborately decorated bath houses decked out in intricate tile work. The Hamam, from the Arabic : حمّام‎, ḥammām is very much like the Turkish or Roman bath.

Bath houses were a place to take the family for the weekly cleansing and meet up with other family members or friends to chat and relax, while being catered to. The female bath houses were completely off limits to males. Staffed only by women, patrons would be guided into various pools of hot and cold water, experience steam baths and massages. Unlike the male bath house, where business was also conducted, the females took along their children for a good scrub as well.

The Bath by Jean Léone Gérôme

The Bath by Jean Léone Gérôme

With this in mind it is interesting to see how male artists of the 19th Century took the theme of a bath house setting and created images that are completely devoid of children. Rather than genre paintings (scenes of everyday life) bath scenes are meant to be erotic, to display beautiful nudes being attended to by beautiful barely dressed slaves.


The Harem Bath by Jean Léone Gérôme

The French artist Jean Léone Gérôme excelled at the depiction of Bath Scenes. I counted about 14 paintings with this topic by him alone. He wrote:

“During a stay in Bursa, I was taken by the architecture of the baths, and they certainly offered a chance to study nudes. It wasn’t just a question of going to see what was going on inside, and of replacing [some men by some women], I had to have a sketch of this interior; and since the temperature inside was rather high, I didn’t hesitate to sketch in the simple apparel of a beauty just aroused from her sleep—that is, in the buff. Sitting on my tripod, my paint box on my knees, my palette in my hand, I was a little grotesque, but you have to know how to adapt yourself as necessary. I had the idea of painting my portrait in this costume, but I dropped it, fearing that my image (dal vero) might get me too much attraction and launch me in career as a Don Juan. (Masson, p. 30)”

After the Bath By Bridgman

After the Bath by Frederick Arthur Bridgman

“After the Bath” by Frederick Arthur Bridgman comes the closest to what could be termed as a genre scene. Bridgeman, unlike his master Gerome, has painted a female caught in the simple act of putting on her shoes. Alone in her room the scene is reminiscent of Renoir’s “Bather Arranging her Hair” – a lone woman going about her daily beauty routine.

Turkish Bath Ingres

Turkish Bath by Jean August Dominique Ingres

But there is so much more to be interpreted from these scenes. One has to consider the times these artists lived in. In an era when sexual openness was taboo, some of these paintings hint at female homoeroticism. Consider Jean-August-Dominique Ingres “Turkish Bath” (1862) for example. The emphasize is not so much on the setting of the neither bath house, nor women bathing or being attended to, but on the relationship between the bath house guest. Some of his bathers are depicted in rather intimate poses, suggesting sexual intimacy.

The Dressing Room Henri Pierre Picou

The Dressing Room Henri Pierre Picou

Bathing scenes, based on observations such as those of Gérôme, have given us glimpses of what an Oriental bath scene might have looked like. They have also shed some light on the way certain renditions have been used to entertain the male art buyer by artfully revealing hidden erotic longings, to cast the viewer into a role of privileged observer to something otherwise hidden from view.

Source: Written by Enzie Shahmiri for Kennedy Publishing March Issue

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