Rudolf Ernst, born in Vienna in 1854, was the son of the architectural painter Leopold Ernst. After attending the Vienna Academy in 1869 and exhibiting in Munich he traveled to Italy in 1874. As early as 1876 Ernst decided to settle in Paris where he would exhibit at the Salon des Artistes Français for the following six decades. Like his close friend Ludwig Deutsch, who also took French nationality, Ernst belongs to the second generation of Orientalist painters. The first generation such as Horace Vernet, Alexandre Colin and Eugéne Delacroix were of the romantic strain and inspired by political events such Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, the Greek War of independence, and France's conquest of Algeria under Charles X. Artists from the second half of the century such as Jean-Léon Géréme, Gustave Bauernfeind, Ludwig Deutsch and Ernst were more interested in depicting scenes from the daily life of the East, as it was imagined then : caravans in the desert, fantasias, mosque interiors, palace guards, or harem women engaged in leisurely activities - such as music or smoking narghiles as in On the terrace (see lot 4) - or in intimate interior activities as in La Manucure.
In this painting we are confronted with one of the archetypal themes of Orientalist painting, that of the 'harem' or 'woman's quarters', a term derived from the Arabic aram (forbidden). As it is the case in all of Ernst paintings, as in those of his compatriot Ludwig Deutsch, the ensemble is composed of multiple borrowings, from the Ottoman style screens in the background, which serve to signify the closed quarters of the women, separating them from the public sphere, to the blend of Iznick-style inspired tiles and Byzantine and Hispano-Moresque combination in the stone work of the water basin. The harem motif is used by Ernst as a canvas on which he projects contemporary western fantasies about these mysterious oriental spaces. His realistic style, complete with the various props, carpets, ewers, tiles, screens that the artist brought back from his trips to North Africa and Turkey, lend the scene its prodigious sense of veracity. The viewer is, in fact, confronted to a theater prop which the absolute technical mastery of the artist transforms into an evocative image of an 'Orient', most importantly of a notoriously forbidden space that extremely few people would have had access to, and which fascinated Western viewers at the time and contributed to Ernst's international success as one of the most gifted Orientalist painters of his generation.