La Grande Odalisque is an 1814 painting by French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
La Grande Odalisque Analysis
One of Ingres’s most famous paintings, La Grande Odalisque hints at an attraction toward Romanticism in the great Neoclassicist and drew harsh criticism because of the strange anatomy of its subject.
What we see
It shows an odalisque — a concubine in the seraglio of an Ottoman potentate — reclining nude with her back to the viewer. She is turning her head to look at us while with her right hand, which holds a fan, she reaches down to the calf of her left leg, which is flexed and lies over her right leg.
The woman is reclining on disarrayed bedding: a crumpled-up white sheet over a heavier black blanket, and next to a gold-coloured coverlet — none of which runs lower than her thighs so as to effectively cover the woad-blue bed. In the left margin, we observe a smoking pipe and a tobacco chest standing on a tray, objects which are themselves prevalently of a bluish colour.
Similarly, the curtain occupies much of the upper-right register, which we realise is reaching down to the woman’s flexing leg, with the hem of it being lightly grasped by her right hand. It is a dark-blue curtain decorated with a regular pattern of reddish cornucopias. We notice that the curtain appears vaguely in the left margin, too, while the background in the middle of the picture, surrounding the woman’s head and the upper half of her body, is pitch black (creating strong contrast).
Similarities with Titian’s Venus of Urbino
Titian’s masterpiece — of which Ingres would create an excellent copy in 1821 — inspired a long line of female nudes who, although confident in returning the attention paid to them by the spectator, cover their nudity in some languid way while resting on an unmade, layered bed.
Behind the reclining nudes of these traditional curtains, usually greenish in colour can be seen screening them off in part from one direction, but never entirely. Objects around the reclining woman tell us something about her character and circumstance.
In this respect, Ingres’ “Venus” alludes to sensory enjoyment by being identifiable as a concubine, by being gracefully decorated with an elegant headdress (she also bears a bracelet, a typical element in Titian’s tradition), and by being placed in a context of velvety softness where no object implies any harshness. The exception may perhaps be the tray with instruments for smoking, but that again is a symbol of rest and enjoyment characteristic of Ottoman culture, and all three objects are polished and smooth.
Ingres’ odalisque, unlike many of her predecessors and successors, has her intimate parts entirely hidden from sight by being turned away from the viewer. In a narrative sense, she may have in fact turned away a moment before our appearance on the scene. An involuntary reaction to receiving an unexpected visitor may be implied in that right hand reaching for the hem of the curtain, which is then not, however, pulled up to cover anything, as if the woman had quickly realised that her body is already sufficiently hidden from sight.
Then again, the confident stare does not allow us to exclude that her reaching for the curtain is perhaps symbolic civility intended to communicate that she does not habitually lie naked when strangers come to visit. This ambiguity about how concerned the reclining woman truly is about being seen in the nude pertains to the entire tradition begotten by the Venus of Urbino.
The fact is spectacularly on display in the great successor to Ingres’ Odalisque: Manet’s Olympia (1863). In that case, it may be added, the painter had no fear that his naked woman needed to occupy all of the visual space in order to be understood and to offend the viewing public.
La Grande Odalisque, which is to say “The Great Odalisque” (also known as Une Odalisque, “An Odalisque”), is “great” because she is the focus of a broad canvas entirely devoted to her body and which makes her appear as a giantess. Ingres’ Grande Baigneuse is an example of the same concept.
Critical reception of La Grande Odalisque
When the painting was shown to the French public in 1814 it attracted overwhelming criticism because of the unnaturally elongated shape of the woman’s back, which is to say her spine.
It seems obvious, for reasons of proportion, that her back cannot have been accomplished naturalistically. As many critics pointed out, she would have had a few more vertebrae than the ordinary human to have a back so long. Anatomical studies of the odalisque have also confirmed the other intuitive fact: that her left arm is distinctly shorter than the right. (Her pelvis would have had to have been longer than the ordinary person’s, too.)
The reason behind Ingres’ elongated odalisque has been variously hypothesised. He was, we must not forget, a highly competent anatomist. He may have wished to accentuate the shape of the woman’s hips so as to suggest an idea of fertility besides erotic value.
He may have also sought to fill the broad horizontal space with her figure in such a way that her ivory flesh would predominate, no matter the point of view, because the entire meaning and purpose of this painting is her body.
Because of this blatant disregard for classicist naturalism, Ingres was perceived in 1814 to have perhaps made a step away from the artistic tradition to which he was considered to belong. The Odalisque comes therefore to be seen as a Romantic expression in his otherwise classicist oeuvre.
Joachim Murat, the short-lived King of Naples and Napoleon’s former marshal, who commissioned the Grande Odalisque alongside other works, would most likely not have encouraged a departure from Neoclassical aesthetics. Murat, if he ever saw the Odalisque prior to his deposition and execution in 1815, certainly never paid for it or its companion paintings.
Location of La Grande Odalisque
Despite almost continuous criticism during Ingres’ lifetime, the painting was purchased in 1899 by the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it hangs to this day as one of its masterpeices.