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Visual Hybridity: Margaret Murray Cookesley’s Orientalist Aestheticism

Julia Kuehn
p. 169-196


This essay foregrounds the work of late nineteenth-century British painter Margaret Murray Cookesley, who may be largely forgotten today, but who in her day exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and, it seems, also managed to sell her art to an interested public. What makes her oeuvre fascinating in the context of British Aestheticism is that she successfully combined artistic principles adopted from the Aesthetic Movement with the Eastern subject matter inherited from the Orientalist painting tradition. By analysing a number of Cookesley’s Orientalist-Aestheticist paintings of harem women this essay thus suggests that Aestheticism was by no means a well-defined or self-contained artistic movement but was open enough to invite often bizarre hybrids like Cookesley’s works into its circle.

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  • 1 See the short biographical sketches in Wood; Stewart and Cutten; and Petteys, s.v. “Cookesley, Marg (...)

1At some point in the 1880s or 1890s painter Margaret Murray Cookesley (?–1927), born in Dorsetshire and trained in Belgium and London, travelled to Constantinople.1 In her 1904 anthology of female painters Clara Erskine Clement describes this important trip in more detail:

A visit to Constantinople brought [Cookesley] a commission to paint a portrait of the son of the Sultan. No sittings were accorded her, the Sultan thinking a photograph sufficient for the artist to work from. Fortunately Mrs. Cookesley was able to make a sketch of her subject while following the royal carriage in which he was riding. The portrait proved so satisfactory to the Sultan that he not only decorated the artist, but invited her to make portraits of some of his wives, for which Mrs. Cookesley had not time. Her pictures of Oriental subjects have been successful. (n.p.)

2Cookesley’s success at the Constantinople court is noteworthy: she received the honour of the Order of the Chefakat and the Medaille des Beaux-Arts, which indicates her ability to appeal both as a person and as an artist to her Ottoman audience and sponsors. But equally important is Clement’s acknowledgement of Cookesley’s success in Britain, both in Royal Academy exhibitions and with the public at large.

3We know regrettably little about this female painter whose oeuvre remains for the most part to be traced, catalogued and analysed. And yet we can deduce several issues from the scant biographical data and the small number of Cookesley paintings from the 1880s and 1890s that have been reproduced in Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction sales catalogues over the last few decades. In particular, they allow us to argue that aestheticism was a far cry from a well-defined, self-contained or, indeed, “high” and “pure” artistic movement. Instead, due to its rather loose definition, it invited hybrid forms like Cookesley’s paintings into its circle, as I will suggest, which simultaneously combined an Orientalist tradition of motifs and subjects—consolidated on the above trip—with the governing principles of aestheticism. Second, we may suggest that this hybridity was specifically a woman artist’s alternative vision within two artistic movements that were dominated by men and masculine visions of female bodies and characters. This essay thus revolves around questions of both genre and gender and how these were successfully negotiated by a now entirely forgotten, but in her day successful and popular, late-nineteenth century artist named Margaret Murray Cookesley.


  • 2 See Lewis 118. Reina Lewis’s is the only account of Cookesley to date, if only two paragraphs long. (...)

4A tentative analysis of a number of Cookesley’s Constantinople harem paintings—which seem to have been her trademark2—has to be prefaced by a few remarks on the two traditions Cookesley tapped into, copied and adapted.

5Pioneered by the French and developed by British and other European artists from the early nineteenth century, but with an increased impulse of artistic activity after mid-century, Orientalist art conventionally refers to images of the life, history and topography of the geographical area between Turkey, the Near East and the Arab peninsula, and North Africa. In contrast to the perceived cohesion of French Orientalism as a distinctive School—the Salon des Peintres Orientalistes Français was established in 1893—British Orientalism has been repeatedly characterised as not only “lesser known” and “less prolific”, but as more “individualistic”, which apparently makes a unified exhibition or analysis the greater challenge (Thornton, The Orientalists 8; “Introduction” to Eastern Encounters 9; Roberts-Jones 17). However, while critical discussions in the 1970s and 1980s therefore tended to focus on famous nineteenth-century French Orientalist painters from Delacroix to Dinet, with British counterparts often interspersed into these discussions, the last two decades have brought forth sustained analyses of exclusively British Orientalist works: the 2008 Tate exhibition The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting and the accompanying exhibition catalogue, edited by Nicholas Tromans, represent very recent efforts.

  • 3 See, apart from studies and catalogues in Works Cited: Roger Benjamin, Orientalism: Delacroix to Kl (...)

6The large number of exhibitions and catalogues bears testimony to both the public’s and the critics’ persistent interest in Orientalist works for at least thirty-odd years.3 I will return to the issue of the popularity of the genre in my discussion of Cookesley’s paintings, but for this introductory section, let me elaborate on the genre’s critical reception since the 1970s.

7As Emily Weeks writes, because of the “unfortunate grammatical intersection of the discourse [Said] called Orientalism with the genre of Orientalist paintings” (24), the assumption was quickly made after Said’s 1978 study that these pictorial representations of “the East” shared the same ideological tenets of racial and cultural superiority Said had identified in nineteenth-century European texts about the foreign other; and that despite the fact that Said himself had disregarded painting almost entirely. Art historian Linda Nochlin first employed the Saidian conception of Orientalism in her analysis of the misrepresentations of the Orient in Delacroix’s “Death of Sardanapalus” and Gérôme’s “Snake Charmer”, the latter of which had, incidentally, graced the cover of the first edition of Said’s Orientalism. Her observations on Delacroix’s fantasy about (Eastern) men’s power over (Eastern harem) women and Gérôme’s realistic style, which seems to legitimise the painting’s subtext of Western cultural superiority, remain forceful and valid. However, they are built on Said’s premise of the Western misrepresentation of the East and, a priori, the binary opposition of West and East.

8Such espousal of Said’s tenets is still occasionally found in discussions of how Orientalist Orientalist paintings are in ideology, politics and representation: Rana Kabbani maintains both in her 1986 study Europe’s Myth of Orient and her contemplations in the Lure of the East catalogue twenty years later that “Orientalist painting as a genre remained frozen in formula and fetish” (Lure 44). Kabbani may be right about the formulaic nature of the genre, but a propos the genre’s fantastic and therefore necessarily false portrayal of eastern life, critics including Michel Thévoz, Olivier Richon, Peter Mason, Frederic Bohrer, Nicholas Tromans and Emily Weeks have shown how much more unstable the supposed superiority of the western gaze is in Orientalist art. They suggest how, in fact, a quest for a “truthful” representation of the Orient, as an antidote to what Tromans calls the “lazy and ignorant repetition of received wisdom” (14), was regularly at the heart of the Orientalist painters’ projects. From Richard Dadd to Frederick Goodall and from William Holman Hunt to Edward Lear, Frederic Leighton, John Frederick Lewis and Margaret Murray Cookesley—all of these painters actually embarked on at least one journey to the Middle and Near East, Arabia or North Africa. Through their authentic experience they might have desired to overcome the fantastic inaccuracies of, say, French Neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres who, for his well-known and acclaimed pictures of oriental odalisques, merely received inspiration from the bath descriptions in Lady Montagu’s Turkish travelogue, without ever visiting the Ottoman Empire himself.

9Paradoxically, such a desire to communicate the Orient in “truth” and “authenticity” was accompanied by a set of semantic conventions and iconographic patterns that were handed from one Orientalist painter to the next. As Kabbani indicates, and as Tromans verifies more explicitly, “ [b]y the 1850s Oriental genre painting had its own established repertoire of locations and subjects. Its basic rules were easy to learn, and for a technically gifted artist this kind of picture could it seemed be mastered, at least to the satisfaction of the critics of the day, fairly easily” (84). Orientalist imagery tended to replicate itself after mid-century, which is a significant phenomenon for the discussion of Cookesley’s oeuvre, as will be shown.

10In terms of the recurrence of oriental sites and subject matters, the harem was, unsurprisingly, a favourite with European painters. Fantasies about women’s quarters and Eastern men’s sexual aggression had intrigued European audiences ever since Delacroix’s “Death of Sardanapalus” or The Arabian Nights. “Enlightened” male writers of the eighteenth and also early nineteenth century—who had, of course, never set foot inside a harem or seen an unveiled Muslim woman—envisioned the harem as a tyrant’s arena for wilful political and sexual power games. The despot’s acts of violence against his slaves and his women, and the sexual licentiousness which was enabled by the rules of Muslim polygamy thus allowed the male Western “observer” to simultaneously fantasize about but at the same time condemn the “Eastern ways of life” given the west’s supposed cultural superiority (see Apter). The harem, according to critic Meyda Yeǧenoǧlu, was such a favoured site as “discourses of cultural and sexual difference [were] powerfully mapped onto each other” (46; see also Melman 60).

11Alev Croutier and Leslie Peirce have shown in their respective studies that the harem was, indeed, a place of power relations, between men and women, women and women, women and servants—and in that it resembled the English drawing room. However, as these critics and also Tromans stress, the facts about polygamy—which had largely already vanished from the early nineteenth century—only replaced the fantasy from mid-century, when western women travellers and artists gained access to the eastern women’s dwellings to show that previous conceptions were regularly far-fetched. Nevertheless, certain conventions had been established in Orientalist art that were difficult to eradicate. Even a painter like John Frederick Lewis, who lived in Egypt for many years and whose wife Marian entered various harems, still reiterated stereotypes in his paintings about luxurious apartments, lazy wives, jealousy, hierarchies and gossip, even if he already domesticated the scene quite significantly, perhaps to differentiate British Orientalism from the nude odalisques of the French colleagues, which many British painters considered tasteless instances of pornography and voyeurism (see Tromans, 128ff).

  • 4 Even The Lure of the East only features two women painters: French-born Henriette Browne (i.e. Mada (...)

12To bring this brief outline of the Orientalist genre to a temporary conclusion, what remains an interesting and, to the feminist critic, troubling characteristic of both exhibitions of British Orientalist art and critical discussions of specific paintings is the still marked absence of female voices and perspectives.4 And this deficiency is, interestingly, shared with British aestheticism, which developed—in a curious but ultimately explicable move—alongside Orientalist art.

  • 5 “A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in t (...)

13While a great deal has been written about nineteenth-century literary aestheticism in Britain, the equivalent phenomenon in the visual arts has received little critical attention. This is surprising, according to art historian Elizabeth Prettejohn, as the visual arts are conspicuous in literary aestheticism; in fact, the visual experience is central to conceptions of the aesthetic approach to life (Prettejohn, Art 1–9; Prettejohn, Introduction 1–14). To reference two of the most famous texts of British aestheticism in this context, namely Walter Pater’s “Conclusion” to The Renaissance and Oscar Wilde’s lecture “The English Renaissance of Arts”: both establish “seeing” and the visual as central to the aesthetic philosophy.5

14Aestheticism in painting, as in literature, remains, as mentioned at the outset of this essay, an elusive category as aestheticism must be regarded more of a “tendency” and a nineteenth-century “movement” than a clearly defined or self-contained school (see Johnson 46; Freedman 3; Temple 218). In fact, many art historians see pictorial aestheticism as representing various late metamorphoses of the Pre-Raphaelite school, which indeed had a distinct collective public identity and which is a cross-reference to which I will return in my discussion of Cookesley. And yet it makes sense to retain the category “aestheticism” as several distinct characteristics emerged and were promoted by its understood representatives, which a painter like Cookesley could then adapt for her own hybrid Orientalist-aestheticist œuvre.

15An outline of the genealogy of the term is useful to delineate the characteristics of the movement. Ever since Sidney Colvin’s article, “English Painters and Painting in 1867”, aesthetic painters had been understood to comprise that group of artists “whose aim, to judge by their works, seems to be pre-eminently beauty” (218). Or, as Colvin elaborates: “The only perfection of which we can have distinct cognizance through the sense of sight is the perfection of form and colours: therefore perfection of forms and colours—beauty, in a word—should be the prime object of pictorial art” (210). Among the painters who followed such trajectory Colvin counted, out of more than 700 artists who exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1867, Frederic Leighton, Albert Moore, James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon, George Frederic Watts, Arthur Hughes and George Heming Mason. (Note for later that we straddle, with Rossetti and Burne-Jones, once more the aestheticism/ Pre-Raphaelitism line, and remember that Leighton—who will be shown to be a particularly useful reference point for Cookesley’s works—was earlier grouped among the British Orientalists.)

  • 6 See Pater’s description of the sensuous and delightful experience of art lying in the pure expressi (...)
  • 7 Swinburne’s essay bears the date 1868 but was actually published in late 1867. Pater would keep the (...)

16Walter Pater and James McNeill Whistler expanded on the issue of art’s autonomy in “The School of Giorgione” and the “Ten O’Clock” lecture respectively, modifying the formulation slightly and referring to the aesthetic movement as one whose aim was beauty and which promoted beauty without realism.6 It was, however, Algernon Charles Swinburne who, in his 1867 essay on William Blake, introduced the famous “art for art’s sake” slogan (91, 101); this turn of phrase was then taken up a year later by Walter Pater in his essay on “Poems by William Morris” (116) and reprinted in the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance (252).7 “Art for art’s sake” replaced Colvin’s earlier phraseology, but the artistic grouping remained the same, with Swinburne and Morris being intimate friends of Rossetti’s, and Leighton and Watts becoming explicitly associated with the later “art for art’s sake” phrase.

  • 8 Pater would keep the formulation “art for its own sake” in the fourth and fifth edition, the latter (...)

17After the 1870s, “art for art’s sake” was then gradually superseded by the term “aestheticism”. Pater’s amended “Conclusion” to the fourth edition of The Renaissance (1893), where he revised the text to “art for its own sake”, shows how the expression had become both outdated and even divisive (239).8 But the movement did not simply receive a new label (Walter Hamilton’s 1882 account The Aesthetic Movement in England also signals this terminological shift): aestheticism also denoted increasingly the more popular and fashionable artistry of the decorative arts, and it became eventually firmly linked with a late-Victorian commodity culture. As a result of this association, and here we return to the starting point of this overview, while aestheticism in literature and also the decorative arts received a detailed history of scholarship, the field with which aestheticism was initially associated—painting—became ignored.

18The concurrent development and height of Orientalism and aestheticism as genres and movements was mentioned earlier. The reason for this might, arguably, lie in the fact that they both had a rather masculine interest in representations of the female form and nature. Intrigued by the harem and the veiled eastern woman to whom access was forbidden, Orientalist painters still attempted time and again to “lift the veil” and represent the foreign female and unknown other. This might be voyeurism in the worst case or, in the best case and as Tromans suggests (78), the British painters’ actual inability to conceive of pictures of “the East” outside the genre painting tradition they had grown up with: genre painting refers in this context to the representation of scenes of anonymous everyday life, which usually included men, women and children. In any case, the harem remained a favoured site for western representations of the east, just like the mosque, to which entry was equally barred.

19In a similar line of feminist argumentation, contemporary critics of aestheticism often referred to aestheticism’s “feminine intensity” and, truly, aesthetes explored on a regular basis the perfection of appearance and beauty through the female form (see Bullen 194–203). As Kathy Psomiades shows in her study Beauty’s Body, figures of females and femininity are central to both literary and pictorial aestheticism. Literature hosts Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel, Arthur Symons’s Emmy, Algernon Swinburne’s Dolores, Walter Pater’s Mona Lisa, Christina Rossetti’s Lizzie, Oscar Wilde’s Salome. On canvas, female figures appear in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Evelyn de Morgan, William Waterhouse and even the black-and-white sketches of Aubrey Beardsley. Indeed, we find what John Dixon Hunt calls “the use of a beautiful woman as an image of the poet’s introspection” almost everywhere in aestheticism (177); females and the feminine were used as a visual embodiment and vehicle of the art aestheticism aimed for, that is, having no other aim than to convey beauty and perfection.

20Female artists in both the Orientalist and aestheticist domain may have been there after all and many are still awaiting to enter the world of scholarship. However, the movements’ common obsession with female bodies and natures is intriguing—even if we have to admit that perhaps aestheticism’s purpose in portraying the female form as an ideal is somewhat more laudable than that of the Orientalists. This essay attempts to both fill a gap by bringing a forgotten painter to the forefront of discussion and highlight her (re-)vision and negotiation of male aesthetic concepts of the female body and of womanliness.


  • 9 Cookesley’s copy (dimensions: 76 cm x 127 cm) fetched £8,500 at a Christie’s auction in London in 1 (...)

21Now to Margaret Murray Cookesley whose hybrid work, in the kinder interpretation, taps into or, in the more unsympathetic assessment, appropriates in an opportunistic way both the Orientalist and aestheticist traditions. As Tromans shows, by mid-century the repertoire of Orientalist sites and subjects had been determined to the point that “a technically gifted artist” could easily master the genre to general and critical acclaim (84). Cookesley’s training in England and Belgium would probably have included copying the old masters; the existence of her undated reproduction of William Waterhouse’s powerful and sensationalist 1884 painting, “Consulting the Oracle”, is a case in point. Barely distinguishable from the original in anything but canvas size, Cookesley’s copying skills are evident.9

Figure 1: M.M. Cookesley, Consulting the Oracle (After Waterhouse).

Figure 1: M.M. Cookesley, Consulting the Oracle (After Waterhouse).

(n.y.) Oil on canvas.

Courtesy of Christie’s.

  • 10 The original source for this description is: J. M. Waterhouse, “Notes on his painting “Consulting t (...)

22The intensely theatrical, obscure and macabre story of the Oracle is accompanied by Waterhouse’s foregrounding of small areas of strong, saturated colours within the shadowy setting. As Waterhouse wrote himself in the 1884 Royal Academy summer exhibition catalogue, the scene (never portrayed before) was taken from Hebrew life, and depicted a priestess channelling the prophecy of “the Oracle or Teraph [which] was a human head, cured with spices, which was fixed against the wall, and lamps being lit before it and other rites performed, [and] the imagination of diviners was so excited that they supposed they heard a low voice speaking future events” (cited in Prettejohn et al. 98).10 The female listeners display, as the Art Journal called it, “swollen features, glazed eyes and a certain ecstatic insincerity” (cited ibid.). Open mouths signal excitement, the varying poses the women adopt in reaction to the prophecy express their emotional uproar, which is also indicated by the disarrayed carpets. The eastern women in this painting are everything the respectable, idealized Englishwoman was not: strong, passionate, irrational, hysterical, unknowable, seductive and sensuous (vide the bare breast of the woman in the front). Waterhouse’s risk in composing this shocking, original Orientalist painting paid off: acclaim and instantaneous success followed.

23The inspiration Cookesley took from Waterhouse’s (and others’) Orientalist paintings and her (most probably subsequent) visit to Constantinople was, first, the oriental setting, including its architectural specificities and props, and, second, the general focus on eastern women and their private surroundings. We cannot say with absolute certainty that Cookesley’s trip to Constantinople actually included a visit to the women’s quarters but we may speculate that it did. After all, this was a western woman’s privilege and honour, and we know that the sultan showed his appreciation towards Cookesley in other ways too. And with the question of Cookesley’s actual being in an eastern harem we return to the issue of the “truthfulness” of the representation of the east which was on many painters’ agendas. What makes me believe that Cookesley actually entered a harem is the fact that her harem interiors are far emptier, more sober, and less decorated than those of her male Orientalist colleagues, including Waterhouse’s but Lewis’s in particular. In fact, they resemble in certain ways the depictions of French Orientalist painter Henriette Browne who, when visiting the Ottoman Empire with her diplomat husband in 1860, also went to a Constantinople harem.

  • 11 For a reproduction of Browne’s painting “A Visit (Harem Interior; Constantinope, 1860)”, see (...)
  • 12 “Les femmes seules devraient voyager en Turquie.—Que peut voir un homme dans ce pays jaloux? Des mi (...)

24Mary Adelaide Walker, an amateur painter who lived in Turkey for over thirty years, and who accompanied Browne, notes in her travelogue and memoirs that theirs was an insight that had been granted to few foreign ladies (I: 10). Browne’s artistic renderings of this visit, entitled “A Visit (Harem Interior, Constantinople, 1860)”11 and “A Flute Player (Harem Interior, Constantinople, 1860)”, were exhibited in the 1861 Paris Salon and caused a stir as these seemed to be the first really accurate accounts of an eastern serail, devoid of fantastic embellishments. “Only Women should go to Turkey”, was Théophile Gautier’s verdict in his Abécédaire du Salon de 1861.12

Figure 2: Browne, A Flute Player (Harem Interior; Constantinople, 1860), Une Joueuse de Flûte (Intérieur de Harem; Constantinople, 1860).

Figure 2: Browne, A Flute Player (Harem Interior; Constantinople, 1860), Une Joueuse de Flûte (Intérieur de Harem; Constantinople, 1860).

1861. Oil on canvas.

Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

25Delibidinising and domesticating the scene in both her paintings, Browne turned the harem from a phallic into a gynocentric place, and Cookesley would follow in this female, perhaps even proto-feminist, tradition. Representing the harem as “was” rather than as “was imagined” is a case in point; the modest, historically more accurate architectural and design details of the harem interior and the subject matter of the social visit theme only represent two aspects in this context. Another point is the portrayal of the sexes’ interaction with each other which was also much fantasized about by male painters. Pictures of eastern men together with eastern women seem to be few in Cookesley’s work, and “Smoking the Pipe” (1893) (figure 3) is a notable exception.

Figure 3: M.M. Cookesley, Smoking the Pipe (1893).

Figure 3: M.M. Cookesley, Smoking the Pipe (1893).

Oil on canvas.

Reina Lewis, Gendering Orientalism (London and New York: Routledge, 1996). Plate 23 [between 126 and 127].

26Here, we see three women framing the centre point of attention and representation: a male towers over the women who attend to him while he smokes a pipe, with conversation (woman left), admiration and physical caresses (woman right) and sheer presence and attention (centre woman, who is possibly a servant). A carpet, cushion, leopard skin, plate of fruits, small low-level seat and papyrus plant establish the props, and the mouchearabia, that is, lattice-clad window, and unpretentious wall ornamentation form the architectural details.

27The painting could, I believe rather simplistically, be read through Saidian Orientalism with its stereotypical rendering of an eastern, male-dominated, indulgent female otherness, its reifying title and the western painter’s objectifying and distancing gaze. (Note that the western painter neither enters the scene nor lets the subjects address the western viewer by crossing gazes.) However, there is a central problem within Cookesley’s representation: in the Islamic tradition eastern women and men would not have come together in such an intimate scene, and women could only be unveiled in the absence of men. As no review of this painting is traceable, we do not know whether critics picked up on this cultural and historical inaccuracy, which goes against any claim to accuracy and “truth”, but we may speculate that Cookesley learned a lesson from this faux pas as all the other paintings I have been able to locate represent exclusively female figures. On the whole, though, more important in this context than the unfortunate bringing together of male and female presence is the particular way in which Cookesley’s women themselves are represented—especially in paintings after “Smoking the Pipe”.

28The Saidian paradigm is reductive and cannot do justice to what I want to establish as Cookesley’s alternative female vision of the Orientalist genre. The crux lies in the way she shows eastern women as far from being—as the Western perspective believed—victimised by tyrannical males and polygamy and therefore in need of rescue. These are no erotic(ized), naked female slaves as in Gérôme’s “Harem Bath” (1889) or Ingres’s “La Grande Odalisque” (1814). As critic Joyce Zonana has suggested, depictions of the Ottoman harem by nineteenth-century Western women often ignited feelings of sisterhood across ethnic boundaries as they established a feminist discourse that analogized the oppression of Islamic women with the lives of Western women in an equally oppressive, male-dominated society. While I called Cookesley’s (re-)vision a possibly proto-feminist one earlier, I do not think that Zonana’s argument is overall appropriate for this painter. Something else but gender politics seems to drive Cookesley’s aesthetic vision: like Browne, she no longer represents Eastern women as exclusively sexual, sensual, passionate beings but, instead, as figures, thoughtful and contemplative, within a domestic setting of interaction, harmony, satisfaction, sisterhood, community, and social belonging. Her women are still attractive and fleshly, but they also engage in musical performances and dance, as in “Entertainment in the Harem” (1894), or they enjoy intimate conversation with one another, without any hint of jealousy or intrigue, as in “Idle Moments” (1894), or they are simply full of sisterly affection, as in “Handmaidens” (n.y.).

Figure 4: M.M. Cookesley, Entertainment in the Harem (1894).

Figure 4: M.M. Cookesley, Entertainment in the Harem (1894).

Oil on canvas.

Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

29What is the most fascinating point about these “more real” representations of harem women “at home”, as it were, is that these apparently more authentic scenes are at the same time heavily idealised. While the props of the Orientalist genre remain, the focus seems to linger increasingly on perfect female bodies, in action and in repose, but also and significantly on women’s model temperaments.

Figure 5: M.M. Cookesley, Idle Moments (1894).

Figure 5: M.M. Cookesley, Idle Moments (1894).

Oil on canvas.

Courtesy of Christie’s.

30Figures in movement express graceful control over the body or general discipline (see the musician, dancer and listener/ spectator in “Entertainment”). Bodies are captured in casual repose, as in “Idle Moments” where crossed legs or half-reclined bodies express movement and relaxation at the same time. The affectionate leaning of two female servants on each other whilst sitting on the floor (rather than sitting on a chair or stool as the women do in the previous two representations) shows yet another most restful (and yet also controlled) pose the female figure can be shown in. Expressions vary from concentration (“Entertainment”) to attention brought upon by thoughtful exchange (“Idle Moments”) to sheer contentment (“Handmaidens”)—these women seem to be both blameless and faultless. Perhaps Cookesley learned (from her blunder in “Smoking the Pipe”?) that it was wisest to link the representation of eastern women with another movement of the day. And here we return to aestheticism.

Figure 6: M.M. Cookesley, Handmaidens (n.y.).

Figure 6: M.M. Cookesley, Handmaidens (n.y.).

Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

  • 13 Note that the contribution of women to the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood is still under negotiation (M (...)

31Whether Orientalism has a necessarily political or didactic purpose, as/like realist or mimetic art, is open to debate; Said would say yes, whereas more recent art criticism as in The Lure of the East questions this premise. What is clear about aestheticism, however, is that it placed itself in stark contrast to the concerns with nature and reality the art criticism of the previous generation had expressed. It placed sensuous pleasure at the forefront of the experience, and focused on artistic concerns like colour, line, tone and pattern. It saw the creative act as subjective and detached from everyday human life, asking philosophical questions about art and the aesthetic experience, rather than imitating life. In criticism, aestheticism has therefore often been seen as blending with, and in certain aspects continuing, the vision of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and we could, indeed, argue that Cookesley’s portrayal of harem women as both fleshly and spiritual, experienced and innocent, available and unavailable, is somewhat reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites.13 Especially her portrayal of women in dresses that reveal bodily shapes rather than entrapping the female form in the long trains, petticoats, corsets, and other heavy paraphernalia of Victorian fashion, seems to echo the Pre-Raphaelites’ belief that the female body should not be distorted. Instead, its unadulterated contours should be revealed to thus symbolize the natural art which had, in their opinion, been lost in English painting which had become too formulaic, too learned and too pretentious. However, while the Pre-Raphaelites turned to the medieval and Renaissance periods for the notion of natural dress and demeanour and some of its painters, most prominently Rossetti, also complicated their vision of femininity through their androgynous models, Cookesley leaned upon two other painters who stood at the margins of the Pre-Raphaelite school but who also, and importantly, participated in the Orientalist genre.

  • 14 See the painters’ biographies and their illustrations in Newall; Jones et al.; Barrow; Becker (ed); (...)
  • 15 As Colvin said in 1867, Leighton’s “ideal is, in the main, the classical ideal. His choice of subje (...)

32The leading Victorian artist and Royal Academy President Sir Frederic Leighton and the popular Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema also painted idealised female figures, but more exotic ones than the Pre-Raphaelites and, significantly, within classical and eastern settings. Their grouping, together with Edward Poynter, as “Victorian Olympians” indicates the distinctive grandeur and archaeological nature of their works. Leighton’s vision of the classical age was heroic, mythical, larger-than-life and, overall, highly respected and influential: his election to Royal Academy President in 1878 came hand in hand with the first knighthood ever bestowed upon a painter. Alma-Tadema’s more intimate daily-life scenes of classical Egypt, Greece and Rome offered, in comparison, languorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of a dazzling blue Mediterranean sea and sky. They were more decadent, more populist and more expensive than Leighton’s. However, the two men’s common artistic ability was a talent to depict an architecturally-detailed Eastern or Mediterranean setting with ideal female figures in it, as in, for example, Leighton’s “Old Damascus: Jews’ Quarter” (ca. 1873–74), his “Odalisque” (1862), or Alma-Tadema’s paintings “A Favourite Poet” (1889), “Unconscious Rivals” (1893), and “Unwelcome Confidence” (1895).14 Together, the “Olympians” displaced the extravagant temperament of aestheticism and the beauty of the female form into the lavish settings, ornaments, heroism and stories of classical Rome and Greece.15 However, their vision was not that of the austere neo-classicism of the early nineteenth century with its tense linearity; rather, it was based on a new interpretation of classical art as the expression of a harmonious, luxurious ideal of specifically female beauty in repose, continuing and developing a Pre-Raphaelite ideal. In fact, the Olympians were the link between the Orientalist genre and the aesthetic movement, and Cookesley’s paintings can be seen as both an imitation and a female take on their works.

Figure 7: M.M. Cookesley, Dreaming (1887).

Figure 7: M.M. Cookesley, Dreaming (1887).

Oil on canvas.

Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

33Her paintings of Eastern harem women may sport an interesting mixture of classicism and nineteenth-century contemporaneity in terms of architectural detail, furniture and paraphernalia, dress, hairstyles, footwear and trinkets, but this mixing was not unusual in nineteenth-century Orientalist art. More importantly, however, once more the central point of resemblance between her and especially the Olympians is the idealisation of the female figure, in both a physical and a spiritual sense.

Figure 8: M.M. Cookesley, Contemplation (1895).

Figure 8: M.M. Cookesley, Contemplation (1895).

Oil on canvas.

Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

34Her portraits “Dreaming” (1887), “Contemplation” (1895) and “Peaceful Thoughts” (1899), show once again Eastern women in various physical poses that reveal beautiful faces and shapely arms, bosoms and legs. These women, their seated positions almost suggesting that these are studies to identify the most appropriate way to show the female figure to its utmost advantage, are calm, contemplative and completely at ease. These are surely no excitable, passionate harem women defined by animalistic sensuousness, irrationality and sexuality; rather, they resemble the ideal nineteenth-century woman, possessing ideal feminine virtues and characteristics that even John Ruskin and Coventry Patmore would have applauded.

35Figures are represented according to a style that demands both perfection and truth: the women are idealised but convincing, so that they oscillate between an idealised nature and a naturalised ideal, just as Leighton and Alma-Tadema would have demanded it in their respective aesthetic philosophies. With their timeless qualities and almost statuesque figures they participate, one could suggest, in aestheticism’s quest for art’s everlasting qualities and outer and inner beauty. This is an art for its own sake that touches upon the eternal and the true, transcending specific historical periods; an art that creates nothing but delight in the viewer and that has no other purpose that to be aesthetically pleasing.

36Figure 9: M.M. Cookesley, Peaceful Thoughts (1899).

Oil on canvas.

Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

37And there is one more point that links Cookesley—who, it should be noted, has never been discussed in the context of the “Olympians” and may never have had official dealings with them—with aestheticism. I began this essay by arguing that late nineteenth-century aestheticism was never a “pure” movement, and I hope to have demonstrated this through my multiple cross-references. But aestheticism, in a third link, also blended with the newly arising commodity culture, thus obscuring the dividing line between high and popular art. (The connection of aestheticism to handcraft is of course well-known, with William Morris being at the centre.) Aestheticism’s connection with the world of commodities was primarily related to the production and purchase of design objects from furniture to porcelain, but it also pertained to paintings. Aesthetic paintings were, in the outgoing nineteenth century, no longer seen as elevated art but became an article of trade to grace people’s dining rooms and salons; in fact, these paintings became the forerunners of the mechanically reproduced, mass produced images Walter Benjamin would talk about in his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

38Orientalism had a tendency to replicate itself, we said, but so did aestheticism. And, again, Cookesley seems to have been at the forefront of this development. What is more, her strategic repetition of scenes and images seems to have worked rather successfully. In the Royal Academy, Reina Lewis writes, Cookesley’s paintings were exhibited “to no great notoriety” but were, on the whole, rather “quietly received” (118). In the buyers’ sphere, however, the situation seems to have been different, with Cookesley paintings actually finding a keen purchasing public. How else could one explain the fact that Cookesley’s female models are, actually, always the same, and only captured in different situations and positions? To recall, she actually did not stay long enough in Constantinople to produce paintings of the sultan’s women, so she would have either painted from memory when back in Britain or used (eastern-looking) models available to her there. (Incidentally, her “hero” Waterhouse also employed Italian sitters for his “Consulting the Oracle” painting.) The lighter-haired woman in “Contemplation”—and the question poses itself how “eastern” she actually is—reappears in “Handmaidens”; the dark-haired woman in “Handmaidens” could be the same as the confidante in “Idle Moments”; and the posture and profile of the women on the far left in both “Entertainment in the Harem” and “Smoking the Pipe” look extremely alike as well. This is repetition with little difference, but it seems that Cookesley not only “got away” with the copying of older traditions and the duplication of motifs and models, but also made it profitable.

39Today, this painter’s works are not found in museums; even the National Gallery owns none of Cookesley’s works. However, their appearance and reappearance in Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction catalogues suggests that they have a home with private collectors and that they are a commodity, to be traded from painter to owner to a different owner, and it seems that this was the case in the late nineteenth century as it is today. In Cookesley’s work, we could argue, we see the move from high-art aestheticism to a mass-produced commodity aestheticism where mass appeal and an audience-focus replace notions of originality or, indeed, high quality.


40Reina Lewis, in her (regrettably) all-too-brief account, dismisses Cookesley’s paintings as less interesting than those of the handful of other female Orientalist painters of the period on account of what she calls their reproduction of the “generic codes of Orientalism” in “cobbled together Oriental-ish tableaux” (119). Inauthentic and “mainstream”, are Lewis’s verdicts. I believe Lewis is too quick to dismiss Cookesley’s vision which, I have suggested, could be read as a female artist’s conscious and savvy attempt to participate in both the male-dominated Orientalist genre and the aesthetic tradition. It seems that a hybrid vision of idealised womanhood in an Eastern harem setting was seen by Cookesley as her own, feminine/ feminist strategy to participate and be accepted, both in critical and in commercial terms.

41Cookesley’s place within both Orientalism and aestheticism may be that of a shameless opportunist, copyist and populariser, and perhaps she was not even a very good one, in “high-art”, qualitative terms. We have to remember, as a critic of “The Royal Academy of 1900” wrote, that because of the fact that the visitor had to pay a shilling for his or her R.A. visit to the exhibition, “a proportion of wall space ha[d] of necessity to be filled by works of no more than average merit” (161): the Royal Academy exhibitions displayed both quality and quantity. While such evaluative comments may be inappropriate for this painter, it seems that, more importantly, Cookesley understood in the 1890s that there was a need for new impulses (Orientalism) or that the lack of a strict definition provided enough room for creative hybrids (aestheticism).

42In fact, in many ways Cookesley can be considered a late nineteenth-century, painterly sister of Lady Mary Montagu, who was also aware of the problem of being at the same time original and appealing to an audience’s or a critic’s expectations. As Montagu wrote in her Turkish Embassy Letters in 1718, at the end of her descriptions of the court of Constantinople: “We travellers are in very hard circumstances. If we say nothing but what has been said before us we are dull and have observed nothing. If we tell anything new, we are laughed at as fabulous and romantic” (118). Such awareness that the painter of Eastern scenes had to colour her canvas in a way that responded to these two audience reactions—being both innovative and yet being so within established parameters—is remarkable. And it is this awareness that we also notice in Cookesley’s work, and for which we must give the latter artist credit. Cookesley secured acceptance in terms of her paintings’ content and style but she also entered a new dimension by translating two existing traditions into her very own hybrid Orientalist-aestheticist vision.

43Roger Benjamin reminds us in the context of Orientalist paintings that the rediscovery of marginalized and forgotten painters must remain a critical prerogative, as it is “the mass of less distinguished artists who most accurately characterize Orientalism as a cultural phenomenon” (Orientalist Aesthetics 281). The same holds true for aestheticism: loosely defined as it is in the first place, we should try to show how especially women tried to find foot within it, if sometimes in opportunistic, bizarre or simply unexpected ways.

Image Sources

Cookesley, Margaret Murray. “Consulting the Oracle, n.y. After Waterhouse” (n.y.). Oil on canvas. Reproduced in: Christie’s London Sales Catalogue (18 March 1983), n.p. Current whereabouts unknown.

Cookesley, Margaret Murray. “Contemplation, 1895”. Oil on canvas. Reproduced in: Sotheby’s Belgravia Sales Catalogue (14 June 1977), n.p. Current whereabouts unknown.

Cookesley, Margaret Murray. “Dreaming, 1887”, Oil on canvas. Reproduced in: Sotheby’s Belgravia Sales Catalogue (2 October 1979), n.p. Current whereabouts unknown.

Cookesley, Margaret Murray. “Entertainment in the Harem, 1894”. Oil on canvas. Reproduced in: Sotheby’s Belgravia Sales Catalogue (17 June 1980), n.p. Current whereabouts unknown.

Cookesley, Margaret Murray. “Hand-Maidens, n.y”. Oil on canvas. Reproduced in: Sotheby’s Belgravia Sales Catalogue (15 Dec. 1981), n.p. Current whereabouts unknown.

Cookesley, Margaret Murray. “Idle Moments, 1894”. Oil on canvas. Reproduced in: Christie’s London South Kensington Sales Catalogue, 22 June 1983. n.p. Current whereabouts unknown.

Cookesley, Margaret Murray. “Peaceful Thoughts, 1899”. Oil on canvas. Reproduced in: Sotheby’s London Sales Catalogue (24 Nov. 1976), n.p. Current whereabouts unknown.

Cookesley, Margaret Murray. “Smoking the Pipe, 1893”. Oil on canvas. Reproduced in: Reina Lewis, Gendering Orientalism (London and New York: Routledge, 1996). Plate 23 [between p. 126 and 127]. Current whereabouts unknown.

Cookesley, Margaret Murray. “A Restful Moment by the Lion Fountain at the Alhambra, Spain, 1894”. Oil on canvas. Reproduced in: Christie’s New York Sales Catalogue, “19th Century European Art; Orientalist Art”, 12 April 2007, p. 39. Current whereabouts unknown.

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1 See the short biographical sketches in Wood; Stewart and Cutten; and Petteys, s.v. “Cookesley, Margaret Murray”.

2 See Lewis 118. Reina Lewis’s is the only account of Cookesley to date, if only two paragraphs long. Note that the original section on Cookesley (later incorporated into the monograph, from which I quote) was published as Reina Lewis, “Women Orientalist Artists: Diversity, Ethnography, Interpretation”. Women: A Cultural Review 6.1 (1995): 91–106.

3 See, apart from studies and catalogues in Works Cited: Roger Benjamin, Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee (Sydney: The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2003); Semra Germaner and Zeynep Ɨnankur. Constantinople and the Orientalists. Istanbul: Isbank, 2002; Gerard-Georges Lemaire, The Orient in Western Art. Preface Geneviève Lacambre (Paris: Mengès, 2000; Cologne: Könemann, 2001); The Orientalists: All Colour Paperback. Introduction by Michelle Verrier (London: Academy, 1979); Donald A. Rosenthal, Orientalism: The Near East in French Painting 1800-1880 (Rochester, NY: Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1982); James Thompson, with an Essay by David Scott. The East: Imagined, Experienced, Remembered. Orientalist Nineteenth Century Painting (Dublin: The National Gallery of Ireland, 1988); Lynne Thornton, Du Maroc aux Indes: Voyages en Orient aux xviiie et xixe siècles (Paris: ACR Editions, 1998).

4 Even The Lure of the East only features two women painters: French-born Henriette Browne (i.e. Madame de Saux, 1829–1901) and Edith Holman Hunt (nee Waugh, 1846–1931).

5 “A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses?” (Pater, Renaissance 236) Wilde’s lecture progresses from a discussion of the pictorial arts via architecture to literature. The final words are on aestheticism’s visual symbols: the lily and the sunflower embody, for Wilde, pure beauty in philosophical aesthetics (Wilde, “Renaissance” 480–81).

6 See Pater’s description of the sensuous and delightful experience of art lying in the pure expression of beauty (“The School of Giorgione” 135). Compare Whistler’s formulation (80): “[Art] is withal selfishly occupied with her own perfection only—having no desire to teach—seeking and finding the beautiful in all conditions, and in all times.” Regarding Whistler, see also Wilde’s response to, and summary of, the lecture in the Pall Mall Gazette.

7 Swinburne’s essay bears the date 1868 but was actually published in late 1867. Pater would keep the formulation “art for art’s sake” from the first to the third edition of The Renaissance, which is referenced here.

8 Pater would keep the formulation “art for its own sake” in the fourth and fifth edition, the latter of which is referenced here.

9 Cookesley’s copy (dimensions: 76 cm x 127 cm) fetched £8,500 at a Christie’s auction in London in 18 March 1983. Interestingly, there is also a “true” copy made by Waterhouse himself. Also reduced in scale, from the original 170 cm x 247 cm (which is owned by the Tate Gallery) to the much smaller 44.5 cm x 72.5 cm, Waterhouse’s own copy sold for £ 433,250 at Christie’s on 25 November 2009.

10 The original source for this description is: J. M. Waterhouse, “Notes on his painting “Consulting the Oracle””, The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts Catalogue, 1884: the one hundred and sixteenth (London: Clowes and Sons, 1884).

11 For a reproduction of Browne’s painting “A Visit (Harem Interior; Constantinope, 1860)”, see

12 “Les femmes seules devraient voyager en Turquie.—Que peut voir un homme dans ce pays jaloux? Des minarets blancs, des fontaines guillochées, des baraques roses, des cyprès noirs, des chiens galeux, des hammals chargés comme des chameaux, des caïdjis à chemise de soie, des cimetières plantés de pieux de marbre, des photographies ou des vues d’optiques. Rien de plus.—Pour une femme, au contraire, l’odalik s’ouvre, le harem n’a plus de mystères ; ces visages, charmants sans doute, que le touriste barbu cherche en vain à deviner sous la mousseline du yachmak, elle les contemple dépouillés de leur voile, dans tout l’éclat de leur beauté ; le feredgé, ce domino du carnaval perpétuel de l’Islam, ne dissimule plus ces corps gracieux et ces costumes splendides.” (72–73)

13 Note that the contribution of women to the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood is still under negotiation (Marsh and Nunn).

14 See the painters’ biographies and their illustrations in Newall; Jones et al.; Barrow; Becker (ed); Swanson.

15 As Colvin said in 1867, Leighton’s “ideal is, in the main, the classical ideal. His choice of subjects has reference always to their capacity for beautiful treatment” (218).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: M.M. Cookesley, Consulting the Oracle (After Waterhouse).
Légende (n.y.) Oil on canvas.
Crédits Courtesy of Christie’s.
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Figure 2: Browne, A Flute Player (Harem Interior; Constantinople, 1860), Une Joueuse de Flûte (Intérieur de Harem; Constantinople, 1860).
Légende 1861. Oil on canvas.
Crédits Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.
Fichier image/jpeg, 148k
Titre Figure 3: M.M. Cookesley, Smoking the Pipe (1893).
Légende Oil on canvas.
Crédits Reina Lewis, Gendering Orientalism (London and New York: Routledge, 1996). Plate 23 [between 126 and 127].
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k
Titre Figure 4: M.M. Cookesley, Entertainment in the Harem (1894).
Légende Oil on canvas.
Crédits Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Fichier image/jpeg, 140k
Titre Figure 5: M.M. Cookesley, Idle Moments (1894).
Légende Oil on canvas.
Crédits Courtesy of Christie’s.
Fichier image/jpeg, 148k
Titre Figure 6: M.M. Cookesley, Handmaidens (n.y.).
Crédits Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Fichier image/jpeg, 124k
Titre Figure 7: M.M. Cookesley, Dreaming (1887).
Légende Oil on canvas.
Crédits Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Fichier image/jpeg, 144k
Titre Figure 8: M.M. Cookesley, Contemplation (1895).
Légende Oil on canvas.
Crédits Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Fichier image/jpeg, 228k
Légende Oil on canvas.
Crédits Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Fichier image/jpeg, 245k
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Julia Kuehn, « Visual Hybridity: Margaret Murray Cookesley’s Orientalist Aestheticism », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 74 Automne | 2011, 169-196.

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Julia Kuehn, « Visual Hybridity: Margaret Murray Cookesley’s Orientalist Aestheticism », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 74 Automne | 2011, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2014, consulté le 14 novembre 2019. URL :

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Julia Kuehn

University of Hong Kong.
Julia Kuehn is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Hong Kong. Her research interests lie in 19th and early 20th century literature and culture, with particular focus on popular and travel writing. Her publications include Glorious Vulgarity: Marie Corelli’s Feminine Sublime in a Popular Context (2004), and the edited collections A Century of Travels in China (2007), Travel Writing, Form, and Empire (2008), and China Abroad: Travels, Subjects, Spaces (2009). Julia is currently working on a monograph on representations of the exotic in canonical and popular women’s writing published between 1880 and 1920.

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