What does this painting of a gaggle of nude ladies at a Turkish Bath and a woman’s college have in common? As a proud scholar of Art History at Bryn Mawr College I feel qualified to answer that question.
Frist, the painting:
During the late 19th century Europeans had a fascination with the Orient and people of all the lands that they colonized. There was this new French fad, popularized by Jean-Léon Gérôme and other white Charles-like men that depicted bizarrely realistic cities of the Middle East. Famous feminist scholar (yeah, feminist) Linda Nochlin, discussed the obvious issues with this phenomena in her essay “The Imaginary Orient”. (Also, this Linda is no ordinary Linda). These offensive renderings of native peoples were not questioned until recently. In fact, the fetishization of The Other was still prevalent as demonstrated by a 1982 exhibition titled Orientalism: The Near East in French Painting, 1800-1880 that further canonized these paintings. Take for example, The Snake Charmer (1870) where not only the performer is on display but his spectators are also the objects of our intrusive gaze. Notice the fallen tiles, elegant Arabic script, and tattered rug—none of it is real. Gérôme had never been to the Middle East. These are his projections of a dirty city implemented to please the captivated French public. The Arabic says nothing. Although this painting resembles the hyper-realistic historical genre, this exotic alley does not exist.
The most common scene of this kind was the Turkish Bath such as the Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres work (1862) first shown. I can’t help but ask, where are the native people? (I spy with my little eye maybe one authentic bath-goer hidden behind the pale standing female braiding her friend’s hair). A realistic rendering of a Turkish bath would have been too outlandish for the 19th century French public. Instead Ingres used the popular space of the orient and replaced Turkish women with white languid female nudes, the most common subject of fine art. Basically, business as usual—white guys exploiting everyone else.
Based off my experiences studying at an all women’s college, Ingres’ Turkish Bath is similar to the perception others have of my social life. This image of sensual semi-homoerotic women is conjured when I tell someone that I go to an all women’s college. This is just like the idea that a girls slumber party is a sexy pillow fight. Like the French artists, these people have never been to a women’s college however they project some erotic lesbian lifestyle for their enjoyment. For the record, I do not lounge around nude all day with my peers and Ingres’ Turkish Bath is far from my reality.
For some inside perspective on what it is like going to a single-sex school I have brought in some vintage photos of Bryn Mawr. Check out these powerful women doing sciencey things, fixing an engine, riding motorcycles, and of course, drinking champagne. Similar to how Nochlin’s polemical essay exposed the issues regarding this French tradition, I want to reveal to our cultured readers at TMC the real culture at a women’s college. Basically, were just going to school, learning and having fun just like everyone else.