“J’ai été ravie de découvrir une peinture méconnue et superbe de Gérôme.” (“I was thrilled to discover an unknown and superb paintin g by Gerome.”) So wrote one of the Louvre Museum’s distinguished Islamic curators, in an August 24, 1999 letter to me, after we had met and for an hour enthusiastically discussed the myriad merits of La Femme en Sérail (The Woman in a Harem), one of the finest, but still too little known paintings by the famous, highly influential late 19th-century French academic artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme (who, incidentally, taught Thomas Eakins and over 140 other Americans in Paris). Painted in Gérôme’s typically smooth, realistic, highly detailed technique, this stunningly crafted painting presents one of his most humanly moving images.
Compositionally, our vision travels leftward from the curving yellow tablecloth in the picture’s lower right corner across to the arcing blue stripes on the lady’s yellow sash and up along her curving back and hair line to the exquisitely rendered, expressive focal point of her face (for just one of countless pictorial delicacies here, we can note how her suspended earring echoes the hanging beads she holds).
Rare—indeed, perhaps unique—in Gérôme’s oeuvre is the great amount of human feeling, as well as compassion and empathy conveyed in this work. Trapped as the woman is indoors--while intense white light (evocative of freedom?) shines beyond the window--we can sympathize with her confined condition and with the spiritual and physical suffering to which she may be fated.
As in many of the best works of art, our eyes here are kept constantly moving, as they travel in a clockwise pattern, alighting along the numerous curves and circular forms in the composition (how effectively, for example, the arc of her hair is repeated in the curving grill work above her, while the sphere of her head is echoed in the window’s two circles.).
Gérôme masterfully orchestrates his lovely colors (what enlivening accent notes the various reds provide!), and his lighting is a marvel of nuance, as it tenderly caresses the woman’s face and beautifully modeled right arm and hand. From its perfectly resolved composition and countless artistic subtleties, this little gem of a masterpiece can never cease to pull on our heartstrings and repeatedly meet our most demanding aesthetic standards. With its brilliant, harmonious design, moving human content, and delicate touch of the artist’s hand, one can never tire of looking at this painting, which seems in every way to have been painted with love.