Born in Paris into a Languedoc family descended from the politician Benjamin Constant de Rebecque, Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant trained first in Toulouse at the local Academie before moving to Paris in 1866. He enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and completed his training under Alexandre Cabanel. The Franco-Prussian War interrupted his studies and his burgeoning career, and he never resumed his academic training. Instead he left for Spain and fell under the spell of the Mudejar architecture of Andalucia and the Spanish trip whetted his appetite for the Maghreb.
Following in the footsteps of Mario Fortuny, Constant travelled to Morocco. Although he had intended to stay in Morocco for only a month, he traveled around the country for nearly two years, returning to France in 1873 with a rich collection of Islamic artefacts. He filled his Paris studio in the Pigalle district floor to ceiling with tiles, jewelery, pottery and precious objects he had brought back from his trips: 'Carpets were hung on the walls, textiles swagged over balconies, plump, embroidered cushions lay on divans, providing the artist with an exotic background for his paintings, executed for over a decade following his journey' (L. Thornton, The Orientalists, Painter-Travellers, Paris, 1983, p. 166). Like many of his contemporaries, Constant's newly stocked studio was transformed into an elaborate stage set which catered to the artist's every whim and idea. He drew from a rich roster of local beauties who modeled consistently for him. With every costume change, a new composition was born; an even more idealistic notion of the East that fed the voracious Western fascination for these exotic lands and its people.
Constant's body of work shows a range of subject matter from quickly executed portrait studies to those of single figures (see Lot 1) and street scenes that capture the bustling markets and vendors of North African towns. Yet it is his sumptuous large-scale multi-figured oils of the harem for which he is most admired and revered. As Ilene Susan Fort notes, 'in Orientalist literature and the visual arts, the harem was the home of all Eastern women. The harem signified the East, its mystery, seductiveness, and indolence. Since it was a cloistered place where access was forbidden to male nonrelatives, in the minds of Western men the haren became a fortress where guards formed a human barrier,' (I.S. Fort, Picturing the Middle East - a Hundred Years of European Orientalism, symposium, Dahesh Museum, New York, 1996, p. 43.).
One of the earliest harem scene conceived soon after Constant's arrival in Paris was Femmes au harem du Maroc of 1875, (fig. 1) a Salon entry which was met with riotous success. Lynne Thornton speculates that the present work dates to the early to mid 1880s which positions the painting within a rich oeuvre of large scale harem scenes and single figure portraits dedicated to women. The painting is a grand showcase of Constant's glittering trademark style. Enlivened by an extremely rich and bright palette, the scene almost comes to life. Set against a glittering architectural backdrop inspired by the architecture of Granada, three women lounge on pillows and rugs lost in thought. The artist lavishes equal attention to the details and architecture as he does to his woman who remain passive and inexpressive. Other beautiful passages of the picture include the richly patterned robes worn by the models which work to visually balance the architectural patterning in the Moorish archways and colonnade in the background. The deeply colored velvet curtain to the right works to separate the inner sanctum of the woman from the more open area with the reflecting pool in the background.
(fig 1) J. J. B. Constant, Femmes de harem au Maroc, 1875, Private Collection.