On his return to Paris in 1838 after a lengthy journey in the Mediterranean in the pay of the American John Lowell Jr., Charles Gleyre decided to build his clientele by working in the fashionable Orientalist genre. He hoped to make use of the studies he had produced as a record of his travels, as Eugène Delacroix had done with his sketchbooks after visiting Morocco in 1832. However, Gleyre was forced to hand over all his work to his employer and his watercolours and drawings were sent to Boston. Only in 1839 did he manage to get them back so that he could build up a repertoire of exotic motifs. This took him most of the year 1840.
Femme turque is typical of the work Gleyre intended to produce based on his Oriental material. It is a version in oils of a watercolour painted six years earlier in Smyrna, where Gleyre and Lowell had spent part of autumn 1834. Like his fellow Swiss artist Jean-Étienne Liotard a century earlier, Gleyre collected a series of portraits of local personalities, including the sisters Annetta and Dudo Narikos. A comparison with the original watercolour (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) shows Gleyre’s extra touches to attract clients in Paris. He kept the luxuriant splendour of the sitter’s costume and the roses and blue lace adornment in her hair. In the original, Dudo stood out against a plain wall; in this version, he has added a terrace, blue sky, the Aegean Sea, and a white minaret. A mirror and peacock feather fan, both typical features of Orientalist painting, also make their appearance. The painting owes its charm to one aspect that remains unchanged from the watercolour: the sitter’s calm, reserved, graceful gaze.
Elizabeth Fischer, ‘Le costume ne fait pas le modèle,’ in Catherine Lepdor (ed.), Charles Gleyre. Le génie de l’invention, exh. cat. Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Milan, 5 Continents Editions, 2006: 99-105.
William Hauptman, Charles Gleyre 1806-1874. I Life and Works. II Catalogue raisonné, Princeton, Princeton University Press, Zurich, Institut suisse pour l’étude de l’art, 1996.