Peter von Cornelius by Emile Jean Horace Vernet

Emile Jean Horace Vernet

Judah and Tamar, 1840, Oil on canvas, 129 x 97.5 cm, The Wallace Collection, London, P346, Bridgeman Images

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Double Standards

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In Horace Vernet’s Tamar, a dark-skinned Judah leans threateningly over a light-skinned Tamar. Tamar’s bare breast and thigh indicate the fact that she is in the act of selling her sexual services, while her veil suggests the mysterious and alluring sexuality which nineteenth century Orientalists like Vernet associated with ‘Eastern’ women (Said 1979: 182).

Judah’s and Tamar’s clothes are based on Vernet’s careful studies of Egyptian clothing. In the desert landscape behind them there is no sign of the rapid processes of modernization and conflict driven by European colonization which were then reshaping the country. Together, clothes and background present an image of Egypt as an ancient but static culture, unchanged since biblical times (Hannoosh 2016: 430).

Biblical texts frequently use the imagery of women’s bodies to signify the purity and fertility of unconquered land, and this biblical imagery played an important role in the way nineteenth-century European colonizers understood themselves. The soft vulnerability of Tamar’s exposed body suggests the opportunity and fertility which European Christians saw in (what they took to be) the pure, untouched lands of North Africa (Schaub 2017: 75; Meyer 2017: 249).

Yet despite the violence unfolding in Egypt as a direct result of European colonialism, here the threatening masculine figure is portrayed not as European, but as Egyptian. The hypocrisy of Judah—happy to ask a friend to take payment to the sex worker that he visited, yet so horrified at the prospect of Tamar’s ‘whoring’ that he threatened to burn her to death—is a hypocrisy shared by Vernet’s depiction, which both revels in Tamar’s seductively exposed body and positions her as threatened by the dark-skinned man who looms over her.

The idea that North African men posed a threat to the women of their societies played a key role in European justifications both for colonialism—seen as the best way to free women from patriarchal control—and for restrictive laws attempting to control sex workers’ behaviour in the name of protecting their virtue (Zonana 1993; Ware 2015; Doezema 2013). But those women were never merely passive victims. We can glimpse Tamar’s cunning here in the staff Judah hands her in lieu of payment—the staff she will later use to prove that he is the father of her illegitimate child. So too the history of resistance to colonialism is full of stories of clever, resourceful women, finding ways to protect themselves and those they loved.



Doezema, Jo. 2013. Sex Slaves and Discourse Masters: The Construction of Trafficking (London: Zed Books)

Hannoosh, Michèle. 2016. ‘Horace Vernet’s “Orient”: Photography and the Eastern Mediterranean in 1839, part II: the daguerreotypes and their texts’, The Burlington Magazine, 148: 430–39

Meyer, Andrea. 2017. ‘A View from Germany: Vernet, New Media, and the Remaking of History Painting’, in Horace Vernet and the Thresholds of Nineteenth Century Visual Culture, ed. by Daniel Harkett and Katie Hornstein (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press), pp. 245–62

Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books)

Schaub, Nicolas. 2017. ‘Horace Vernet and the Conquest of Algeria through Images in Horace Vernet and the Thresholds of Nineteenth Century Visual Culture, ed. by Daniel Harkett and Katie Hornstein (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press), pp. 73–89

Ware, Vron. 2015. Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History (London: Verso)

Zonana, Joyce. 1993. ‘The Sultan and the Slave: Feminist Orientalism and the Structure of Jane Eyre’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 18.3: 592–617

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