In 1856, Gérôme ventured to Egypt, beginning the first in a series of extensive sojourns he would make throughout northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia Minor. Gérôme was mesmerized by what he encountered abroad, as he said of his first excursion to what is now Istanbul, 'My short stay in Constantinople had whetted my appetite and the Orient was my most frequent dream' (Quoted in G. Ackerman, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Paris, 2000, p. 42).
Gérôme's eastern yearning led him back to Istanbul on a second trip in 1875, where his reputation as one of France's most successful contemporary artists preceded him and he was enthusiastically welcomed by the city's cosmopolitan elite. While in Istanbul, he stayed as a guest of the sultan's artist Abdullah Siriez and later went on to negotiate the sale of paintings, including his own, to the sultan himself. This time in Istanbul proved particularly inspiring for Gérôme's work as well as he executed a series of half-length portraits of women of Constantinople upon his return to Paris. According to Gerald Ackerman, the women pictured in this series actually lived in Paris while their elaborate dress was culled from the bazaars that Gérôme frequented while in Istanbul.
The present painting in both subject matter and title relates to this series. A cherubic-faced woman wearing a white gossamer veil and an elaborate blue robe sits silhouetted against a crimson background. The careful attention given to her visage reveals Gérôme's strength in rendering not only flesh but also the psyche. Eyes averted, she remains elusive, absorbed in her own thoughts about which we can only wonder.
Gerald Ackerman suggested in a letter dated October 6, 2002 that the face and veil of the woman are by the hand of Gérôme while the blue drapery is most likely finished by another artist.