Largely a byproduct of the 19th century West’s fascination with Eastern cultures, particularly those of the Middle East, the Orientalist trend in art was widespread in British and European art. The bright colors and exotic locales (not to mention the more overt eroticism that could be portrayed when dealing with foreign subjects, since they were considered less civilized anyway) attracted artists like a magnet. One especially tempting draw for these painters were harem scenes, for obvious reasons, and it should be no surprise to anyone that occasionally the subjects were young adolescent girls. While it is true that there is often an implicit, if not explicit, racism in the attitudes of these Western artists and their portrayals of the Middle East, it is also fair to say that there was likewise a deep-seated admiration, and perhaps even a kind of respect, for a culture which to many Westerners must’ve evoked the scenes and peoples of the Bible, including the harem, which is a tradition that stretches into the ancient histories of the Middle East, Southeast Asia and even in parts of South America.
It is important to note that the Western conception of the harem as a kind of lush prison full of the sultan’s or king’s hundreds of sex slaves, aside from being largely an exaggerated myth of the xenophobic Occidental world, is also a rather simplistic notion of what the harem was. Essentially the harem was the domain of the women, children and concubines of a Middle Eastern royal’s family, forbidden to all males save for eunuchs and the king, sultan or other high-ranking royalty or leaders, which would include his wives, mother, daughters, and even sons until they came of age. The harem could be a kind of paradise, a feminine oasis, and other than the slaves and servants, women had a good deal of power here that they would not have outside the harem’s walls.
Like Symbolism, Orientalism was less an artistic movement in itself than a loose confederation of art addressing a common theme. Ergo, there are many different artists with a wide range of styles that fit into the Orientalist tradition.