The Almeh (with pipe)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Jean Léone Gérôme
French, 1824 – 1904
The Almeh (with pipe), 1873
Oil on Canvas
From the entry in ‘Orientalism’, an exhibition catalogue by The Art Gallery of New South Wales (published 1997), p 101:
“Kuchuk has just left her bath…her front hair was platted [sic] in thin braids that were drawn back and tied together, the lower part of her body was hidden in immense pink trousers; her torso was entirely naked under purple gauze…She is a formidable looking creature, large-breasted, fleshy, with slit nostrils, enormous eyes, and magnificent knees; when she danced there were formidable folds of flesh on her stomach.”1
Jerome made four images of Egyptian almehs, female entertainers specialising in dance, in 1872-73. The Cairene almeh’s strikingly coloured costume of ballooning trousers and transparent blouse was noted by both Lane and Flaubert, who was describing his famous erotic encouter with the courtesan Kuchuk-Hanem in Egypt in 1850.2 Like Kuchuk-Hanem, Gerome’s Almeh (with pipe), here seen soliciting trade from the street, doubles as a prostitute. Gerome’s primary emphasis is on the seductiveness of the meticulously painted costume, artfully enhanced by the provocative pose. The almeh’s face and arms, one raised above her head and the other resting on her hip, are semi-concealed by dusky veils of green and black chiffon, leading the eye to dwell on the luminous skin exposed on her breasts. Her body inclines forward, with one slippered foot invitingly extended. The voluptuousness of her belly is emphasised by the trousers billowing out beneath the knot of fabric on the hips. The long pipe reinforces the message of languor and sensuousness. Gerome adds intrigue to a potentially obvious image by placing the model to one side of the stone doorway. This lures the imagination into the dark reaches of the passage behind her, where the shrouded figure of the procuress stands. This decrepit woman, and the broken patterned grille over the doorway above her, function as imitations of the material and moral decay that often haunted European fantasies of the Orient as a paradise of limitless erotic pleasure.
1. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857, ed. Francis Steegmuller, Faber & Faber, London, 1981, p. 116.
2. William Lane, The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1836, p 386, quoted in Richard Ettinghausen, ‘Jean-Leon Gerome as a painter of Near Eastern Life’, in Jean-Leon Gerome, exh. cat. Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio, 1972, pp. 19-20.