PARIS – “Yesterday I fell in love with a Turkish Princess,” wrote the artist Elisabeth Jerichau-Bauman during her travels through the Near East, in a letter to her husband back in Denmark. We are in the 1870s, and this lady feared neither overstatement nor scandal – for good reason; she was far ahead of her time.

She was born in Poland but married the Danish sculptor Jens Adolf Jerichau, an eminent professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts; they had nine children. Yet, far from contenting herself with the role of housewife, however comfortable that may have been, Jerichau-Baumann concentrated unashamedly on her art. She painted the Good and the Great, from the writer Hans Christian Andersen to the Queen of Denmark, thereby earning the esteem of the Court. She also had the curiosity of a prototype reporter, feeling free to explore – without husband or children – countries where most women would not have set foot without a bodyguard or chaperone. She discovered the Ottoman Empire, and made the acquaintance of Mustafa Fazl Pasha – a liberal-minded Egyptian prince open to Western mores, whose hospitality even extended to opening the doors of his harem.

Anna-Maria-Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann’s The Princess Nazili Hanum, Istanbul, 1875. Estimate €10,000–15,000 ($13,000–19,500).

This was an immense privilege: whereas her male colleagues had to call on their powers of imagination to bring their Oriental works to life, Jerichau-Baumann was invited to paint models in the flesh. When the Prince introduced her to his brilliant daughter, Zainab Nazli Khanum Effendi, who moved in the cultivated circles of Istanbul and Cairo, Jerichau-Baumann was so captivated by this Oriental beauty – whose personality was as strong as her own – that she boldly set about painting her portrait. She showed the princess gazing out unblushingly from beneath a canopy of gold-spangled blue gauze, posing as a reclining odalisque and immodestly offering her pearly-white bust, draped merely in a see-through blouse, for viewers’ delectation. The composition is curiously reminiscent of a certain Olympia – that impertinent courtesan who had mealy-minded members of the bourgeoisie spluttering into their armagnac a few years before.

Sotheby’s France – View of the Orient
Thursday 23 October at 2:30pm

Pascale Pavageau is Head of 19th Century Paintings & Drawings at Sotheby’s France.