odalisque (painting) matisser
Matisse’s model for many of his paintings including Odalisque with Raised Arms is Henriette Darricarrière. Darricarrière was born in 1901, she studied ballet, violin, piano, and painting. She sat for Matisse from 1920 to 1927. 
The painting has very little spatial depth, forcing the viewer to confront the woman in the foreground. The architectural and decorative elements further focus the viewer on the seated female. The shadows and curvature of her body is accentuated in contrast with the flat rendering of patterns in the planes behind her. The red decorative element, possibly a tapestry or a painting, hanging on the wall and the striped armchair that she is sitting in offer movement to the viewer’s eye.
Ingres’s “La Grande Odalisque,” from 1814, in the collection of the Louvre.
The British artist Richard Hamilton, in 1961, wrote, “It is the Playboy ‘Playmate of the month’ pullout pin-up which provides us with the closest contemporary equivalent of the odalisque in painting.” Matisse, who died a year before the first issue of Playboy came out, would probably take issue with that analogy. If his odalisques were no more realistic than a Photoshopped Playboy model, they were exaggerated not for the sake of prurience but design; they were as decorative as the florid backdrops. He painted these women—European models dressed in exotic fabrics—with a softness and ardor that many people, women included, find flattering. Matisse’s greatest collectors, as the MIA exhibition attests, were two enlightened women from America.
Other historians and writers overtly discuss the problematic nature of white Europeans not only inventing and exploring sexualized fantasies of prostitutes in foreign locales, but also inviting viewers to take pleasure in these desires. In 2015, writer and poet Najwa Ali explored Matisse’s odalisques, looking to the underlying violence of such imagery and representation. With pointed, lyrical prose, Ali introduces the subject of the odalisque in terms the average reader would understand:
In museums and art history texts, such terminology and subject matter (which most often is imagined and painted by white European male painters) goes largely unchecked. The Norton Simon Museum has a small-scale upcoming exhibit focused on paintings of odalisques by Henri Matisse and other prominent artists. The museum’s promotional material merely nods to the complications behind such imagery: “These erotic images of women in the geographically vague ‘Orient’ evoked a life of luxury and indolence far removed from nineteenth-century industrial society (and twenty-first century standards of representing race and gender).”
One step over we’re confronted by “Odalisque with Tambourine” (Harmony in Blue) (1926). Painted in Nice, where, for “eight years, Matisse devoted himself to the theme of the odalisque,” the figure and decoration of Matisse’s constructed harem scene seem to merge. Her arms raised to strike the instrument mirror the arched mosaic behind her, while her pants match the green outline. The blue of her shirt is drawn from the mosaic’s geometric shapes and her nipples mimic the circular tiles. She is of the decorations and they of her, all objects of male, sensual pleasure.
Alone on the far wall of the exhibition is Pablo Picasso’s “Women of Algiers, Version I” (1955), one variation in his monumental series based on Eugene Delacroix’s “Women of Algiers in their Apartment” (1834). Inspired by his visit to Algeria soon after its brutal conquest by France, Delacroix’s painting is more Western fantasy than social reality of life in a harem. The discarded sandal, the narghile pipe, the various states of undress, speak not to the women’s experience but to that imagined by their viewer. Alienated from their reality, the women become objects for the male voyeur. Appearing simultaneously everywhere at once, Picasso’s fragmented figures complete this abstraction by subsuming them in the field of painting just as the odalisque is subsumed by the desires of her male owner. Her surroundings are the labyrinthian prisons of slavery.
Jean-Frédéric Bazille (French, 1841-1870), Woman in a Moorish Costume, 1869. Oil on canvas. 39-1/4 x 23-1/4 in. Norton Simon Art Foundation.
The exhibition concludes with Pablo Picasso’s remarkable recreation of the Women of Algiers (1834), an iconic harem scene by Eugène Delacroix. Picasso’s abstracted interpretation of the composition is one of 15 paintings and hundreds of works on paper of this subject that he produced in a concentrated burst of activity in late 1954 and early 1955. Although the Spanish artist had long admired Delacroix’s masterpiece, the impetus to paint an odalisque was likely inspired by the death of Matisse that November. Speaking of his longtime friend and artistic rival, Picasso explained, “When Matisse died, he left his odalisques to me.” The canvas in the Simon’s collection, Women of Algiers, Version I (1955), freely absorbs and reconfigures its sources, simplifying and flattening the forms into forceful fields of red, blue and black that allude to odalisques past while dramatizing the vision of the painter in the present.