”Shards, oh shards
The androgyny fails
Odalisque by Ingres…” (Manic Street Preachers – Pretension/Repulsion)
Odalisque was a tremendously popular subject in the history of art, from Francois Boucher to Henri Matisse, but the most memorable and the most fascinating rendition of the odalisque is certainly the one J.A.D. Ingres painted in 1814.
Ingres was a Neoclassical painter, and his style changed very little throughout his career. His favourite subject was quite unsurprisingly the female nude, and his fascination with the Orient was not a secret. Ingres was fascinated by the exotic world of the Near East (‘Proche-Orient’) and in 1814, aged thirty-four, he chose to convey his two fascinations on the canvas. A work that he created, ‘Grande Odalisque’, remains his most memorable and most controversial painting.
Painting ‘Grande Odalisque’ shows an Odalisque, a concubine in a Turkish harem, or more precisely – a concubine in the household of the Ottoman sultan. Odalisque was suppose to be a very beautiful woman, specially trained to dance and sing, and, unlike the Russian Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna who ‘wasn’t born to amuse the Tsarz‘ as Pushkin wrote it, an Odalisque was indeed born to amuse the Sultan. ‘In the Ottoman Empire, concubines encountered the sultan only once, unless she was especially skilled in dance, singing, or the sexual arts, thus gaining his attention.‘
Ingres painted his Odalisque lying on a divan, offering herself, echoing the pose of David’s portrait of Madame Recamier painted in 1800. Unlike later Odalisque paintings by Matisse, or even Eugene Delacroix, Ingres’ Odalisque seems quite modest, turning her back, and rewarding the viewer only with a glance. Her face appears cold and aloof, radiating disinterest. Reserved and refined, she is a stark contrast to subsequent Odalisque paintings. Compared to Matisse’s Odalisques, painted in vibrant colours, plump and sensual, spreading their legs, dressed in colourful and inaccurate garments, or Delacroix’s vivid Odalisque lacking formality, coldness and restraint that were of vital importance to Neoclassical style, and therefor valued by Ingres.
Her body was a source of fascination throughout the centuries as it is too elongated and idealised. For Ingres, long lines symbolised sensuality and with a few corrections her wanted to portray a pure beauty on canvas. This infamous elongation and the small head evoke the spirit of Mannerism. It is also interesting to note how perfect her skin tone is – Ingres adored thin, almost invisible and perfect brushstrokes and he was disgusted by heavy or visible brushstrokes; he never gave up his Neoclassical ideals.
‘Grande Odalisque‘ gives us a very good insight into Ingres’ style and its main characteristics such as precise and refined lines, masterly handling of lines, light and shadow, and a limited use of colours. Ingres was very proficient in drawing, and he considered colour to be just a useless accessory. Even in this painting, a limited use of colour is evident; there’s an interesting contrast between blue and yellow, but that’s all there is. He said: ‘Drawing is the probity of art. To draw does not mean simply to reproduce contours; drawing does not consist merely of line: drawing is also expression, the inner form, the plane, modeling. See what remains after that.‘
Ingres painted in Davidian style and considered himself a ‘…conservator of good doctrine, and not an innovator‘. He disliked all the dramatic and flamboyant qualities of Romanticism, but nevertheless chose an exotic subject for his painting, thus making a shift towards Romanticism in art. ‘Nature and exotic landscapes’ was one of the four main areas of interest in Romanticism, and it’s not surprising that Ingres wanted to capture that sensual, colourful and exotic world of Orient on canvas.
In painting, Ingres was somewhat influenced by what he had read. Although his reading list was slightly limited (Homer, Virgil, Dante), a female writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu prompted his fascination with Odalisques. Lady Montagu is today remembered for her letters from Turkey which are described as ‘the very first example of a secular work by a woman about the Muslim Orient‘.
So, this painting is a love child of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Baudelaire described Ingres as a painter of “profound sensual delights.”