In this piece, Żmurko presents an exotic image of a harem chamber, replete with gleaming fabrics and scattered jewels, as a setting for the statuesquely beautiful body of an odalisque murdered “at the order of the padishah”. The carefully arranged pose of the woman ensures compliance with the aesthetic canon of academism, discreetly eliding the drastic physiological details of death by strangulation. The fact that we are beholding a lifeless –but still beautiful – body is indicated only by the red cord visible at the odalisque’s neck. The dramatic import of this violent death in the oppressive, darkly sensuous atmosphere of the harem is amplified by the device of closing in the visual space with the heavy draperies surrounding the bed, the dishevelled sheets, the scattered furnishings and costly baubles, and the deep contrasts of darkness and light modelling the woman’s body, with its delicate carnation and fine contours.
This intoxicating combination of sumptuous scenery, unsettling eroticism, and death emanating from Żmurko’s painting was very much in tune with the prevailing tastes of the time. The elegant bourgeoisie, bored in its languid material contentment, welcomed stimuli of ecstasy and terror disguised in the props of exotic imaginary worlds. These provided a psychological respite from the convention-bound salons of polite society. At the Order of the Padishah, painted soon after Żmurko’s return from Paris, ranks among his strongest works, combining a well-balanced composition with adroit rendition of the opulent paraphernalia scattered about, a tastefully subdued colour palette and the perfection of the academic finis.
Orientalism in Polish Art can be seen at Pera Museum between 24 October 2014 and 18 January 2015.