Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard

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Jean-Leon Gerome

1824-1904

French , Orientalist painter, draftsman and sculptor

Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard


Oil on canvas

Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard is a masterwork created during Gérôme's adventures to the middle east. At a time when travel involved health risks, physical discomforts and potentially lethal hazards that we today can only imagine, Gérôme's travels were an act of heroism and exploration of a type that is no longer possible in our shrinking world. The composition of the picture is remarkable, all the way across the canvas from left to right through the line of action. The white veiled women are each distinct individuals by the color of their robes and the poise of their individual poses. The woman feeding the pigeons extends her hand in easy grace, enhanced by Gérôme's depiction of the birdfeed as it gently drifts towards the ground. I cannot with certainty say that Gérôme consciously wished to evoke the Madonna, but her robe is the unmistakable gentle tint of blue used by artists for centuries when depicting this iconic figure. Surely it is significant that the light catches some of the pigeons, bleaching them dove-white as angels on the wing.





In contrast, the palace guard is a true outsider to the scene. Unlike the women, his face is uncovered and his skin is dark. He wears a dramatic, military red robe and his arms are tightly clenched to his body. He is not in any way involved in her act of charity and nourishment, which is particularly feminine. The comparison is made that the women tend to the flock of pigeons as the man tends to the flock of women; a commentary on Arabic culture.

The birds are masterfully done, flying in-and-out of shafts of bright sunlight. Their shadows are cast on the sun-drenched steps, and they nest in the beams overhead. The sense of flight is complete, with elegant wings suspending them mid-air, mixed with a sense of both delicacy and movement.





The most impressive aspect to this picture, is the way in which Gerome has captured the lofty space and feeling of the courtyard. The pillars have support beams stretching back to the wall, providing a sense of depth. The pillars on the left are partially lit, providing a sense of height and scale. One can almost experience the cool recesses of the space and hear the coo of the birds. The door behind the birdfeeder leads into darkness and the cooler recesses within, while the window to the right opens out into the sun and open air. This enclosed space, is fully realized and complete.





- By James Abbot


Adapted from an article first published September 20th, 2011 on the Jade Sphinx