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John Frederick Lewis, 1804–1876

A Lady Receiving Visitors (The Reception)

Former Title(s):

The Reception

A lady receiving visitors: the apartment is the mandarah, the lower floor of the house, Cairo [1874, Royal Academy of Arts, London, exhibition catalogue]

Materials & Techniques:
Oil on panel
25 × 30 inches (63.5 × 76.2 cm), Frame: 33 × 37 3/4 inches (83.8 × 95.9 cm)

Signed and dated in grey paint, lower right: "J.F. Lewis R.A. | 1873"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
couch | decoration | divan | gazelle | interior | light | servants | society | visitors | women
Associated Places:
Cairo | Egypt | Urban
Not on view
IIIF Manifest:

The virtuoso painter and watercolorist John Frederick Lewis traveled extensively in Spain and Morocco in the early 1830s and lived between 1841 and 1851 in the Egyptian city of Cairo. Fascinated with Islamic art and culture, Lewis created refined, poetic, and ambiguous images of Egyptian life that rejected popular orientalist stereotypes. Painted over twenty years after his return to England, A Lady Receiving Visitors (The Reception) depicts the mandarah, or the first-floor reception room in an Egyptian house. Although Lewis’s meticulously detailed portrayal of the space implies documentary accuracy, women were not permitted to enter the mandarah. Lewis did not provide an interpretation of the painting, but his depiction of women at ease in a masculine space may be intended to refute contemporary British critiques of the treatment of Muslim women in Egypt and the Middle East, and subversively comment on the domestic restrictions imposed on their British counterparts.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016

When it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874, this painting's full title was A lady receiving visitors: the apartment is the Mandarah, the lower floor of the house, Cairo. The detailed decoration appears to be based on the interior of Lewis's house in Cairo. The gazelle, a favorite Egyptian house pet, features in several of Lewis's paintings in this genre, a reminder, like the camels in his desert scenes, of the artist's early training as an animal painter.

Gallery label for Connections (Yale Center for British Art, 2011-05-26 - 2011-09-11)

In this picture, the lady of the house is draped languorously across a couch or divan, a female attendant before her. To their left, a row of male and female servants and visitors waits expectantly, demonstrating various forms of etiquette appropriate to members of nineteenth-century Egyptian society. The treatment of these figures, along with the profusion of detail and ornamental excess that covers the painting's surface, seems to attest to the scene as an actual moment in time, an event that was witnessed and honestly recorded by this most informed of artists. The artist and poet Edward Lear commented soon after this picture was painted, "There never have been, & there never will be, any works depicting Oriental life-more truly beautiful & excellent . . . For, besides the exquisite & conscientious workmanship, the subjects painted by J. F. Lewis were perfect as representations of real scenes & people."

However, at the same time that the painting works to convince its viewers of its authenticity, it embodies a meaningful paradox. Lewis first exhibited the painting as A Lady Receiving Visitors: The Apartment is the Mandarah, the Lower Floor of the House, Cairo. The word mandarah precisely identifies the setting of the picture as a public space of entertainment and reception on the first floor of an Islamic house, in which a man received his male visitors, a fact that would have been recognized by readers of Edward William Lane's vastly popular Modern Egyptians, which had been republished in 1871. By choosing to place his female protagonist in the mandarah rather than in the private spaces of the women's quarters, Lewis overturns a basic characteristic of Muslim domesticity.

- One of the longstanding justifications for intervention by Britain in the affairs of Egypt and the Middle East in the mid-nineteenth century was its promised liberation of the allegedly oppressed and sexually exploited women it envisaged there. Lewis's women, however, are depicted as in no need of aid or rescue; they are neither oppressed, helpless, nor objects of pity. Rather, they enjoy the liberties that contemporary gender prescriptions in Egypt would not have permitted. Their transposition into the mandarah, the masculine center of the Middle Eastern household, then, is not only disruptive of Muslim ideologies and social conventions, but is also a threat to accepted rationalizations for British imperial and domestic policies.

Gallery label for Lure of the East - British Orientalist Painting (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-02-07 - 2008-04-28)

Lewis lived in Cairo from 1841 to 1851 and built up an archive of over six hundred sketches that served him for the remaining twenty-five years of his career. The image of Middle Eastern life that emerges from his work is refined, genteel and often deliberately ambiguous or unsettling. In this work, Lewis's highly detailed style disguises a significant cultural inaccuracy: women of the harem would never have been allowed into the mandara, or first-floor reception room, depicted here.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2002

Connections (Yale Center for British Art, 2011-05-26 - 2011-09-11) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Lure of the East - British Orientalist Painting (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-02-07 - 2008-04-28) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

The Orientalists - Delacroix to Matisse - The Allure of North Africa and the Near East (National Gallery of Art, 1984-07-10 - 1984-10-28) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Gerald M. Ackerman, Les orientalistes de l'école britannique, vol. 9, ACR Edition Internationale, Corbevoie, Paris, 1991, p. 189, N7429 A2514 1991 [ORBIS]

Emmanuel Bénézit, Dictionary of artists, Bénézit , Grund, Paris, FR, 2006, p. 956, N40 .B4413 2006 [ORBIS]

Susan P. Casteras, The substance or the shadow : images of Victorian womanhood, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1982, pp. 43, 85, no. 55, pl. 49, N7630 C27 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Julie F. Codell, Victorian Artists' autograph replicas : auras, aesthetics, patronage and the art market, Taylor & Francis, Ltd, New York, p. 285, ND467 .V515 2020 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Malcolm Cormack, Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 146-147, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Alev Lytle Croutier, Harem, the world behind the veil , Abbeville Press, New York, NY, 1989, p. 27, HQ1170 C84 1989 [ORBIS]

Miles Danby, Moorish Style, Phaidon, London, 1995, p. 66, NK1270 D25 1995 OVERSIZE [ORBIS]

Joan DelPlato, From slave market to paradise, The harem pictures of John Frederick Lewis and their traditions , University Microfilms International, Los Angeles, CA, 1987, pp. 278-281, NJ18 L5857 D45 1987A [ORBIS]

Joan DelPlato, Multiple wives, multiple pleasures, representing the harem, 1800-1875 , Associated University Presses, Inc., Madison, NJ, 2002, pp. 205, 215-216, 231, 257n.46, fig. 6.2, NX650.H37 D45 2002 OVERSIZE [ORBIS]

Fine Arts, The Graphic, London, May 23, 1874, p. 502, Online at 19th century British Libray Newspapers Article retrieved from 19th Century British Library Newspapers [ORBIS]

Roswitha Gost, Der Harem, Koln, 1993, p. 159, N8217 H37 G67 1993 [ORBIS]

Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts, A complete dictionary of contributors and their work from its foundation in 1769 to 1904 , , Henry Graves & Co., London, 1905 - 1906, vol. 5, p 55, 1874, no. 354, N5054 G73 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Zeynep Inankur, The Poetics and politics of place, Ottoman Istanbul and British Orientalism , Pera Museum, distributed by University of Washington Press, Istanbul Seattle, WA, 2011, pp. 248-49, fig. 17.4, ND1460 E95 P647 2011 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

International Saleroom, Connoisseur, vol. 165, June 1967, p. 133, no. 6, N1 C75 OVERSIZE [ORBIS]

Michael Lewis, John Frederick Lewis, R.A., 1805-1876, F. Lewis, Publishers, Limited, Leigh-on-Sea, 1978, p. 39-40, fig. 64, NJ18 L5857 L48 OVERSIZE [ORBIS]

Michael Lewis, The Lewis family, art and travel, five generations of artists , Unwin Brothers, London, 1933, pp. 65-66, NJ18 L58571 L48 1993 [ORBIS]

Reina Lewis, Gendering Orientalism, race, femininity, and representation , Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group), London ; New York, NY, 1996, p. 111, pl. 16, NX650 E85 L48 1996 [ORBIS]

Sarah Macready, Influences in Victorian art and architecture, Society of Antiquaries of London, London, 1985, p. 133, N6465 V5 I54 [ORBIS]

H. C. G. Matthew, Oxford dictionary of national biography, in association with the British Academy : from the earliest times to the year 2000 , vol. 59, Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York, 2004, p. 629, DA28 .D5 2004 [ORBIS]

F.T. Palgrave, Royal Academy Exhibition, (second notice) , Academy, vol. 5, Academy Publishing Co., London, May 16, 1874, p. 555, Available online at British Periodicals I [ORBIS]

Claude Phillips, John Frederick Lewis, R.A., Portfolio, 23, Seeley, London, January 1892, p. 96, Available online at British Periodicals II [ORBIS]

Sotheby's, Sotheby's sale catalogue : Catalogue of Fine Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Drawings and Paintings : 15 March 1967, Sotheby's, London, March 15, 1967, p. 48, lot. 167, Auction Catalogues (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Sweetman, The Oriental Obsession, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge : New York, NY, 1988, pp. 136, 138, 141, fig. 76, N6764 S94 1988 [ORBIS]

The lure of the east : British Orientalist painting: wall labels, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2008, p. [48], V 2577 (YCBA) V 2577 [YCBA]

The lure of the East, British orientalist painting, 1830-1925 , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2008, p. 12, 16, V 1879 (YCBA) [YCBA]

The Matthews Picture Sale, The Times (London), , , Monday, June 8, 1891, p. 12, Available online : Times Digital Archive Also available on Microfilm : An T482 (SML) [ORBIS]

The Royal Academy Exhibition, Illustrated London News, London, May 9, 1874, p. 446, Available online: Illus. London News Hist. Archive [ORBIS]

The Royal Academy, Athenaeum, no. 2477, London, May 2, 1874, p. 600, Available online at British Periodicals I [ORBIS]

The Royal Academy, Art Journal, London, July 1874, p. 200, Available online at British Periodicals I [ORBIS]

The Royal Academy, Athenaeum, issue no. 2431, J. Frances, London, May 30, 1874, p. 740, Available online in British Periodicals II DB Also available in hardcopy A88 At521 + OVERSIZE (SML) [ORBIS]

Deborah A. Thomas, Thackeray and Slavery, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1993, pp. 46, 48, fig. 5, PR5642 S56 T48 1993 [ORBIS]

Nicholas Tromans, The lure of the East, British Orientalist painting , Tate Publishing, London, 2008, pp. 23, 25-28, 30-32, 38-39, 82, 131, 133-134, 147-149, 216, fig. 15,25,128, N7429 .L87 2008 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Emily M. Weeks, Art and the British Empire, Manchester University Press, Manchester ; New York, NY, 2007, xvi, pp. 237-243, 245, 247-251, XVIII, 86, N6766 .A77 2007 [ORBIS]

Emily M. Weeks, Cultures crossed : John Frederick Lewis and the art of orientalism, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven, 2014, pp. 4,8,107-27, 129, 143, 203 [n. 4n-11], 204 [ns 12, 13, 16,17, 19], 205-06 [ns 22, 25, 26,27, 35, 37, 40], 208 [ns. 48, 51, 52]. 209 [ns. 55, 56]. 211 [n 78], color detail and figs. 86-90, NJ18.L5857 W437 2014 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Emily M. Weeks, New Discoveries : Oil and Water, ( Re ) Discovering John Frederick Lewis ( 1804 - 76 ) , Nineteenth - Century Art Worldwide : [ electronic resource ] : a journal of nineteenth - century visual culture, Vol. 12, Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art, College Park, MD, Autumn 2013, No page number given, fig. 1, Avaialble online ( ORBIS ) URL = http://19thc-artworldwide.org/index.php/autumn13/new-discoveries-re-discovering-john-frederick-lewis-1804-76 [ORBIS]

Emily M. Weeks, The "reality effect", The Orientalist paintings of John Frederick Lewis (1805-1876) , University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, MI, 2005, pp. 217-238, fig. 5.1, NJ18.L5857 W44 2005A [ORBIS]

Caroline Williams, John Frederick Lewis, "Reflections of Reality" , Muqarnas, vol. 18, Brill, 2001, pp. 228, 229, fig. 2, V 2575 (YCBA) Also available online : JSTOR. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1523309 [YCBA]

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Harems of the mind, passages of western art and literature , Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2000, pp. 225, 228-230, 302n.39, NX650.H37 Y43 2000 [ORBIS]

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