Born in northeastern Germany in 1822, Wilhelm Gentz first studied at the university in Berlin before giving up academics in favor of painting. He trained with August Kloeber, then at the Antwerp academy, finally in Paris with Paul Delaroche. He spent several years living in Muslim lands. After a brief period of further study with Thomas Couture, Gentz devoted himself to Ottoman and Egyptian subjects for the rest of his career.
Far from the romanticized versions of Ottoman life depicted by the Orientalists, this depiction of a harem, in this case the wives and concubines of a government official, is based in close personal observation. Gentz lived in Cairo, where he met an Egyptologist whose connections gave the artist access to the harem, normally forbidden to men but especially to foreigners. The wives and concubines, guarded by a eunuch, take their daily exercise in a walled garden with trees and fountains. Their varied appearance reflects their origins in the many provinces of the Ottoman empire, which stretched from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf to the western Mediterranean.