From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
An odalisque was a female slave in an Ottoman seraglio. She was an assistant or apprentice to the concubines and wives, and she might rise in status to become one of them. Most odalisques were part of the Imperial Harem, that is, the household, of the sultan. The word derives from “chambermaid” from oda — “room”.
An odalisque was not a concubine of the harem, but it was possible that she could become one. Odalisques were ranked at the bottom of the social stratification of a harem, serving not the man of the household, but rather, his concubines and wives as personal chambermaids. Odalisques were usually slaves given as gifts to the sultan, bey or wealthy Turkish man. Generally, an odalisque was never seen by the sultan, but instead remained under the direct supervision of his mother, the Valide sultan. If an odalisque was of extraordinary beauty or had exceptional talents in dancing or singing, she would be trained as a possible concubine. If selected, an odalisque trained as a concubine would serve the sultan sexually, and only after such sexual contact would she change in status, becoming thenceforth a concubine. In the Ottoman Empire, concubines encountered the sultan only once—unless she was especially skilled in dance, singing, or the sexual arts, and thus gained his attention. If a concubine's contact with the sultan resulted in the birth of a son, she would become one of his wives.
During the 19th century, odalisques became common fantasy figures in the artistic movement known as Orientalism, being featured in many erotic paintings from that era.
- Culture of the Ottoman Empire
- Islam and slavery
- Odalisque (Jules Joseph Lefebvre) painted by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1874)