So, we close our look at Orientalist painter Ernest Normand (1857 - 1923) with one of his most prurient pictures, The White Slave from 1894.
It is astonishing how many of Normand’s paintings concern slave girls, or brown and black men ogling white women. Normand wore his cultural fears and prejudices on his sleeve, and they leaked into his work with a happy regularity. These concerns were almost always couched in the tropes of history or Orientalist paintings, settings that would give free reign to his rather colorful imagination. (He must have been a delight at dinner parties.)
Happily, there are some instructive things in this picture. First off, the magnificent carved lion in the background was also in Bondage, his picture from three years earlier. Also, notice the circular motif of the tiled floor – this was present also in Bondage and Esther Denouncing Haman. Also briefly glimpsed in the hands of the seated slave is the dulcimer from Bondage. Finally, see the ubiquitous palm tree in the background, which for Normand means all things foreign.
The story of the picture is clear enough. A slave dealer brings his latest prize to an Eastern or North African potentate, who already has two slaves in attendance. The poor woman (obviously a captive of some kind) disrobes, her gaze turned away in shame.
While making japes and wheezes about Normand’s taste (or lack of it), it’s too easy to overlook the man’s real skill at drawing and compositional sense. First off, we see again Normand’s mastery of drapery as we look at the robe around her lower body and spread upon the floor. Also impressive are the “Eastern” rugs and pillows beneath the king, along with the tiger rug (another holdover from Bondage).
Also true is his command of anatomy. Not only is the central woman beautifully rendered, but the other two female slaves are depicted with a sure hand.
The look of desire on the king’s face is quite telling, as is that of calculation on the slave trader. Though not subtle, Normand once again channels his obsessions into a dramatic picture.