The term “odalisque” refers to female slaves who served in large households in the region of the Muslim world now known as Turkey through the 19th century. Most famously, odalisques served in the Seraglio of the Ottoman Sultans. Many people have misconceptions about odalisques, in large part thanks to the Western school of painting known as Orientalism, in which odalisques and other female slaves were often subjects of painterly interest.
This word is French, and it is taken from the Turkish odalik, which simply means “chambermaid.” As a general rule, odalisques were only found in large households which required an extensive support staff, and they served the wives and children of the house in a variety of ways. Odalisques might entertain, clean, and perform a variety of tasks around the harem, the area of a house set aside specifically for the use of women, and they in fact rarely interacted with the men of the household.
In rare cases, odalisques became concubines. Some people mistakenly believe that “odalisque” can be used interchangeably with words like “concubine” and “mistress,” but this is not in fact the case. The majority of odalisques who acted as concubines were in the Grand Harem of the Turkish sultan, and they had to work hard to attain the status of concubines. In the more general Muslim community, odalisques were simply hard working servants owned by powerful and wealthy households.
While Muslims were allowed to own slaves, they were encouraged by religious authorities to manumit their slaves. Any children born of slaves were generally presumed to be free, with the slaves themselves attaining freedom upon the death of their masters, if they were not manumitted earlier. For some families, sending a daughter to serve as an odalisque in the Grand Harem was viewed as a sound decision, because she would be guaranteed room and board, and in the event that she did become a concubine, she could benefit from a variety of gifts and privileges.
When Westerners began interacting with the Islamic world, they found the world of the harem particularly fascinating, probably because they were not usually allowed in. As a result, all sorts of myths and legends arose around the harem and the people who lived there, and many of these legends made their way into fictionalized accounts of harem life and paintings. The odalisques depicted in Orientalist paintings are typically quite young and beautiful, and they were often painted in languid positions, wearing minimal clothing. The life of leisure enjoyed by the odalisques in these paintings would have been unfamiliar to most real odalisques, however.