Fenton made a series of photographs inspired by the Victorian vogue for the exotic trappings of empire, modeled on the harem scenes and odalisques of Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres that he had seen in Paris, and motivated by his desire to elevate the status of photography by tackling themes more frequently treated in painting.
"Reclining Odalisque" is among the quietest pictures in his series. There are no cowering slaves or leering sultans, no music or dancing, few stage props, no narrative tale. The odalisque is simply there, a vision floating in darkness: the exquisite embodiment of Victorian fascination with the exotic and the erotic. She lies languorously on dark pillows set on layers of carpet; she is barefoot but crowned with golden coins; she wears loose-fitting, patterned harem pants and a blouse fully unbuttoned to reveal a hint of bare breast below gossamer. She caresses an upturned goblet drum, a phallic darabukke inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and she looks at us from the shadows, subtly provocative in a way calculated to stir the Western imagination.