Vulgarity, fantasy and money: why European artists degraded Roma women in their paintings

РОмки на картинах художників

The influence of Roma on other peoples can be noticed in all shapes of cultural life. Recall of Spanish flamenco, spectacular circus and fair performances, folk fiddle, accordion or Welsh harp. In particular, the Roma also became characters in the works of various artists. However, Roma women did not always arouse common curiosity among European artists, writers and composers, especially during the reign of Orientalism in art.

The popularity of eroticism in art overlapped with stereotypes and the low social status of Roma in European society. The girls, depicted in a frank, mysterious or even savage way, evoked a lot of emotions in audience. The image of a Roma woman in art made some troubles for her, because it literally “shouted” about low moral standards and debauch. In a various paintings by famous Italian, French, and German artists, we see Roma women with long hair, beautiful facial features, but half-naked. First, attention is focused on the ideal appearance of the character on the canvas and secondly on the conditions. What could be the reasons for this trend –  find out in Djanes.

Roma women in the paintings of artists often became the object

of desire and lust.

In the 19th century, the fashion for “exotic” cultures reigned in Europe. The paintings of Roma women in revealing clothing could be perceived as part of it. The trend created an incessant curiosity of novelty and of forbidden things. Roma culture was foreign to most Europeans, so women could be seen as “exotic” and “mysterious”. This made it possible for artists to depict them as sexual objects that satisfied the audience’s desire for new, unusual forms of eroticism.

Excessive interest in erotic paintings was associated with Orientalism, a set of stereotypical ideas about the sexuality of Eastern cultures. Not only women of Roma nationality, but also any other “aliens from the east” could become the object. Orientalism first came up with the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt at the end of the 18th century. Those Muslim territories, where the foot of the French soldier stood, were of great importance in the creation of the Eastern myth. One of the main issues was the discussion of naked women. Later, the movement would be condemned and perceived as a form of colonial expansion of Eastern cultures. Since Europeans did not know much about the Roma, and their origins were often associated with the Egyptians, the depiction of Roma women was quite consistent with the trend.

European artists wanted to attract attention and increase the

commercial success of their works by depicting Roma women naked

The plot of naked oriental beauties was in great demand among local men. This “exoticism” and sexuality were used by artists to gain commercial success. The social position of Roma was lower compared to the majority of the population. The depiction of revealing and torn clothing in the painting also reminded viewers of social and economic vulnerability.

In much of the art, music, and literature of the 19th century, the female Gypsy in particular was characterized and stereotyped as free-spirited, strong, deviant, demanding, sexually arousing, alluring, and dismissive. This romantic construct of the Gypsy woman may be viewed in direct opposition to the proper, controlled, chaste, submissive woman held as the Victorian European ideal.” – Ian Hancock, “The “Gypsy” Stereotype and the Sexualization of Romani Women”.

The depiction of women in revealing clothing can be connected to a

colonial and racist view of culture

European artists who created paintings with Roma characters wanted to show their “brutal” and “wild” oriental beauty. Such images were often intended to satisfy the viewer’s demand for erotic, and also demonstrated the views of the European culture of the time on the national minority. In such painings, Roma women were the object of sexual attraction. The frank depiction of Roma women in the painting may be related to the contemptuous attitude towards the Eastern communities, over which the local population was privileged.

The paintings implied to the audience that the “alien” culture was less valuable and civilized compared to the local one. In the future, this could have consequences for real women from the Roma community. They were constantly subjected to discrimination and violence as a result of negative ideas about their moral values.

In many cases artists created fantasy images of Roma women,

inspired by ideas and legends about women from the East

It cannot be argued that all images of Roma women in a candid form in paintings are the result of posing for artist in this way. In many cases, artists created fictional depictions of Roma women, which could be based on myths, legends, or cultural stereotypes. If there were cases of posing, they cannot be generalized and considered as typical. Some images in the paintings are the result not only of the will of the model herself, but also of cultural and social factors such as poverty, social vulnerability, artist or customer addiction, especially for the Roma of that time.

Stereotypical stories about “exotic beauties” were also spread

by European travelers who did not personally meet Roma

The British traveler Bayle St. John, who had never met real Roma in his life, wrote that Roma women were extremely beautiful, had dark skin and bold temper. In his story, he noted that Roma make men wonder how such eyes, and figures can exist in the stifling atmosphere of their tents.

It was furthermore his painful duty to admit to his prudish Victorian readership that he was “sorry to be obliged to add that both men and women are, as a rule, exceedingly debauched”- Ian Hancock, “ The ‘Gypsy’ stereotype and the sexualization of Romani women”. He described all this in his story in behalf of his acquaintance. Accusations of the lack of morality among the Roma were a reason to criticize their sexual practices, neglect of decency and respect for the body.

Despite influence of the cultural movement, some artists painted

“other Roma women

Not all paintings had erotic motives. It is possible to find many various works in which Roma women and children are the main characters. These paintings may have been important symbols in reflecting traditional Roma values, particularly family traditions. The images also helped to draw attention to the problems faced by the community: poor living conditions, lack of social support, early motherhood.

What happened next?

The main reason that prompted artists to paint Roma women in a sexualized way is the dominance of orientalism and, as a result, the demand for oriental eroticism. In the 20th century, the trend among artists underwent changes and evolution. On the one hand, it continued to depict Eastern culture in exotic and often stereotypical forms, using Orientalist motives and myths. On the other hand, new cultural movements appeared such as modernism and avant-garde, which have changed the approach to the depiction of Eastern theme.

In the light of social and political changes that took place in the 20th century, many artists began to perceive Orientalism as a form of colonial expansion arising from an excessive focus on the culture of dependent countries. This led to the criticism of tradition and the emergence of new cultural movements that had a task to depict the world in a different way by neutralizing stereotypes and cliche. Already at the beginning of the 20th century, artists actively painted Roma women in a different way, while not spreading negative narratives in society.

In the 21st century, society came to condemn the sexualization of any population group, and Roma in particular. Portraying women as erotic objects or exotic “others” is considered a form of racism and discrimination. Today, humanity is in favor of reflecting the cultural and historical features of any community without stereotypes. Human beauty in any century inspired artists to create masterpieces. This is unchanged today, but the main lesson was learned by society – is the right to choose and equality, which the “eastern beauties” on the artist canvas of the 19th century did not have.

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