Renowned for his elaborately painted genre scenes and charming views of London, Filippo Baratti stands out as an Orientalist of very stylish pictorial references. Attracted at first by the costume scenes inspired by 16th and 17th Century interiors, in the late 1870s the artist, like many of his Italian colleagues, fell under the fascination of the contemporary pan-European vogue of Eastern themes that was particularly prevalent in London and Paris. He turned his observant eye from the Renaissance bal masqués to lavish Orientalist scenes, displaying in his new panels and canvases the same profound attention to detail that was so highly praised in his cityscapes and genre scenes.
Inspired by L'Espagne, the guide to the Moorish splendours of Southern Spain written by the Baron J.C. Davillier in 1877, Baratti began his visual journey with rich representations of the Alhambra. He soon broadened his Orientalist portfolio however, captivated by the exploration of North-African interiors and Harem scenes, of which the present oil, painted in Paris in 1881, is an accomplished example.
The majority of 19th Century Orientalist artists found their inspiration in the depiction of that portion of the Muslim house occupied by the women and usually the most remote - the harem, the best-known of all Eastern institutions. The Orientalists' manner of approaching this subject matter falls more or less into two iconographical categories; sumptuous, lascivious fantasies on the one hand and, on the other, more intimate scenes of domesticity in the European manner, depicted according to the Western idea of the East. Barratti's In the Harem falls strictly into the second section. The painter's intention, in fact, is not to create a voluptuous extravaganza based on fantasies of a forbidden world, but to capture the chaste pleasures of the odalisques, secluded in their private apartments and charmed by the music of the elegant maid. By structuring the Orientalist scene as a typical genre capriccio, Baratti engages the viewer in a game of quotes and references. He alludes to the iconographical elements of the traditional 16th Century concert scene, adapted and transposed within the splendid context of the Oriental harem.