who painted la grande odalisque
An important contributor to Neoclassical art, Ingres was strongly influenced by the High Renaissance painting of Raphael (1483-1520) and Titian (1485-1576), as well as the Baroque painting of classicist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Thus Ingres may be said to represent the conservative strand of French painting, being primarily concerned with conserving and refining the classical traditions that were rediscovered during the Italian Renaissance. His career, however, belies such a tidy summary, being a jumble of contradictions. He was a master of drawing, yet some of his most famous figure painting is anatomically inaccurate; he was seen as the doyen of academic art, yet he was rejected by the French academy until the age of 44; his greatest ambition was to be recognized for his history painting, yet his strongest forte was portrait art and figure painting involving just a few figures; in his outlook and way of life he was conventionally bourgeois, yet according to the art critic Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) his best paintings show him to be highly sensual. In any event, his skill at painting was undeniable: at the age of 17 he joined the workshop of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), one of France’s greatest neoclassical artists, and at 21 he won the coveted Prix de Rome. His greatest masterpieces are now thought to include: The Valpincon Bather (1808); La Grande Odalisque (1814); Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808-27); Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832); The Turkish Bath (1863) – all in the Louvre – and Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1856, National Gallery, London).
La Grande Odalisque – the word “odalisque” stems from the Turkish term for ‘harem concubine’ – was commissioned by Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister and wife of Marshal Joachim Murat, King of Naples. It may have been a matching piece for another nude, La Dormeuse de Naples (now lost). In any event, due to the collapse of the regime, Ingres received no payment for the work. It is Ingres’ second major female nude, after the Valpincon Bather (1808). Like its sister, it represents the idea of femininity – the unchanging and eternal ‘feminine ideal’ – rather than a real live woman. But unlike the cool, muted neoclassicism of the Valpincon canvas, La Grande Odalisque is rich in oriental colour and opulence. This does not demonstrate – as some critics have suggested – a shift away from neoclassicism towards romanticism. It merely indicates a readiness on the part of Ingres to embrace the warmer ambience of Venetian painting, when the situation demanded it. For more about the artistic use of colour in Venice, see: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting (1500-76).
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. Indeed, Ingres’ porcelain sexuality is made acceptable even to an increasingly prudish French culture because of the subject’s distance.
Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque.
© 2005 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier
Caroline Murat (1782-1839), Napoleon’s sister and the queen of Naples, commissioned this painting in 1813. It was probably a matching piece to another nude, La Dormeuse de Naples, destroyed in 1815. La Grande Odalisque was painted in Rome, where Ingres had arrived in 1806 to complete a fellowship at the Académie de France. The artist remained in Italy until 1824 because his art was unpopular in Paris. The works he exhibited at the Salon of 1806 (Caroline Rivière and Madame Rivière, Louvre), and the paintings he sent from Rome (The Valpinçon Bather, and Oedipus and the Sphinx, Louvre) were criticized. The exhibition of La Grande Odalisque at the Salon of 1819 confirmed that the critics didn’t understand Ingres’s style. They admonished him for disregarding anatomical reality, which set him apart from his teacher, Jacques Louis David (1748-1825).
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Ingres was fascinated by the customs of the near Eastern world and was particularly intrigued by the exotic sensuality of the Orient. With the common theme of the female nude, Ingres added his own preference by using an odalisque (a female slave of the harem; the household of the sultan) as his main inspiration for the work. He drew further inspiration from Jacques-Louis David, echoing the poses of a female figure from David’s earlier painting.
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.
Another interpretation of this painting suggests that since the duty of some concubines was merely to satisfy the carnal pleasures of the sultan, this elongation of her pelvic area may have been a symbolic distortion by Ingres. While this may represent sensuous feminine beauty, her gaze, on the other hand, has been said to “[reflect] a complex psychological make-up” or “[betray] no feeling”. In addition, the distance between her gaze and her pelvic region may be a physical representation of the depth of thought and complex emotions of a woman’s thoughts and feelings.