For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).
Ingres always enjoyed recycling themes and devices from earlier periods. Here, the overall theme is basically a revision of the ‘reclining venus’ – as seen in The Sleeping Venus (1518, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) by Giorgione (1477-1510), and The Venus of Urbino (1538, Uffizi, Florence) by Titian. The idea of using a reclining woman who looks back over her shoulder may have come from Jacques-Louis David’s society portrait of Madame Recamier (1800, Louvre). Meanwhile the anatomical distortions are (as in the Valpincon picture) taken from the Mannerism era – see, for instance, the famous Madonna of the Long Neck (1535, Uffizi, Florence) by Parmigianino (1503-40).
Instead, Ingres has created a cool aloof eroticism accentuated by its exotic context. The peacock fan, the turban, the enormous pearls, the hookah (a pipe for hashish or perhaps opium), and of course, the title of the painting, all refer us to the French conception of the Orient. Careful—the word “Orient” does not refer here to the Far East so much as the Near East or even North Africa.
Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque.
Grande Odalisque, also known as Une Odalisque or La Grande Odalisque, is an oil painting of 1814 by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres depicting an odalisque, or concubine. Ingres’ contemporaries considered the work to signify Ingres’ break from Neoclassicism, indicating a shift toward exotic Romanticism.
Grande Odalisque attracted wide criticism when it was first shown. It is renowned for the elongated proportions and lack of anatomical realism. The work is owned by the Louvre Museum, Paris which purchased the work in 1899.
La Grande Odalisque
This woman lying on a divan is offering herself because she is nude and turns her face towards us. The painting’s title, which means “harem woman,” and the accessories around her conjure up the sensuous Orient. But the woman is also discreet because she shows only her back and part of one breast. The nude was a major theme in Western art, but since the Renaissance figures portrayed in that way had been drawn from mythology; here Ingres transposed the theme to a distant land. The subject of the odalisque fascinated Boucher in the eighteenth century and was later chosen as a theme by Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856), one of Ingres’s pupils. Throughout his career, many of Ingres’s works feature Orientalist themes, such as The Turkish Bath (Louvre), which he painted towards the end of his life. The female nude, historical scenes, and the portrait were Ingres’s favorite genres.
In the mind of an early 19th century French male viewer, the sort of person for whom this image was made, the odalisque would have conjured up not just a harem slave—itself a misconception—but a set of fears and desires linked to the long history of aggression between Christian Europe and Islamic Asia (see the essay on Orientalism). Indeed, Ingres’ porcelain sexuality is made acceptable even to an increasingly prudish French culture because of the subject’s geographic distance. Where, for instance, the Renaissance painter Titian had veiled his eroticism in myth (Venus), Ingres covered his object of desire in a misty, distant exoticism.
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