John Frederick Lewis, ‘The Bazaar of the Ghûriyah from the Steps of the Mosque of El-Ghûri, Cairo’ 1841–51
John Frederick Lewis
The Bazaar of the Ghûriyah from the Steps of the Mosque of El-Ghûri, Cairo 1841–51

Genre painting, the depiction of everyday life, was fundamental to nineteenth-century British art. Through such images British society was able to analyse itself, especially to reflect upon the little dramas of domestic life. But in the Middle East, so British artists complained, they felt excluded from local family life and so were compelled either to imagine life in the harem (Room 5), or to focus instead upon the male-dominated public spaces of the cities they visited. John Frederick Lewis, who lived in Cairo throughout the 1840s, emphasises the relaxed pleasures of male company, just as his harem scenes appear to show female social spaces freed from many of the tensions between men and women shown in traditional British paintings of domestic scenes.

Such tensions between the sexes were, however, shown to reappear whenever women entered public spaces. In Lewis’s Seraff, some female shoppers get into difficulties in their dealings, while in William Holman Hunt’s Lantern-maker’s Courtship, a girl’s modesty is compromised when she visits the stall of her fiancé. In its most extreme form, this vulnerability of women in the public sphere is represented in scenes of slavery, such as William Allan’s The Slave Market, Constantinople, in which women have themselves become the commodity.