The beginning of the 19th century was marked by the Napoleonic wars that spread across the territory of the majority of the Western European countries. These conflicts led between the troops of the French Empire and its allies, and the collation led by the British Empire ultimately gave way to nationalism and liberalism, the emergence of independence movements in Latin America, the collapse of the Spanish Empire, and several other important shifts in a global socio-political landscape.
Despite the state of emergency, during that time the art production flourished in the light of the dominating Neo-Classical movement. Unlike the exaggerated Rococo style, this particular tendency emerged simultaneously with the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, propagating the return to Classical antiquity of Ancient Greece and Rome as a sole base for artistic production, the ultimate ideal. Inspired by the archeological discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii, and the writings of the pioneering art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Neo-Classical artists revisited and adopted the Renaissance canons of representation by focusing on historical painting, and archetypal nudes.
The artist who left a great mark in art history and somehow presented a new current within this movement was the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867). Under the influence of past artistic traditions, Ingres developed a unique style mainly focused on the historic painting inspired by the likes of Jacques-Louis David and Nicolas Poussin. Celebrated as a great portraitist, Ingres was also fond of Orientalism (an art tendency based on the exoticized image of the Eastern world), and for his treatment of form and space; for this and more, he is considered a pioneer of Modern art.
Various relevant paintings illustrate Ingres's skillfulness, and one of them is still as heavily debated as at the time Ingres produced it; therefore it is not strange that it is considered his most recognized artwork. La Grande Odalisque, a beautiful nude commissioned by Queen Caroline Murat of Naples, sister of Napoleon, was purchased in 1899 and ever since held at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
This outstanding oil painting made by Ingres in 1814 depicts an odalisque or concubine in a laying position in a lavish interior. While the distorted proportions reflect the influence of Mannerist painters, while the overall composition is based on the tradition of the Great Venetian masters, especially Titian's Venus of Urbino from 1538.
However, La Grande Odalisque is in no classical setting, and Ingres purposely decided to place the odalisque in an exotic context to underline the forbidden desire. This is further accentuated with details such as the turban, the peacock fan, enormous pearls, and the hookah (a pipe for hashish or perhaps opium), which make the painting a representation of the French conception of the Orient.
Although Ingres constructed the composition for the male gaze, the same was an embodiment of both seduction and desire, but also fears related to the centuries-old antagonism between Christianity and Islam.
After it was shown publicly for the first time in the Parisian Salon of 1819, La Grande Odalisque was welcomed with fierce criticism for its eclecticism (in this case - a combination of classical and Romantic themes).
Furthermore, Ingres’s style was perceived as rebellious, a definite departure from the contemporary tendencies. The critics indicated that this disproportionate physiognomy showed a complete disregard of anatomical realism. Back then, the body elongations were perceived as errors on the part of Ingres, while more recent studies confirmed the elongations were Ingres’s deliberate distortions, a conclusion followed by the fact that some concubines had to satisfy the carnal pleasures of the sultan.
Although Ingres gave his best to present sensuous feminine beauty and perhaps he failed, what makes this painting staggering is the gaze of the odalisque which reflects her depth and complexity of her emotional states.
This notable painting surely set an example for further explorations of the nude as an autonomous genre, and although it was considered shocking La Grande Odalisque was a response or contribution to what as in vogue at the time.
Interestingly so, La Grande Odalisque gained another kind of fame after it became appropriated by the feminist art group Guerrilla Girls. In 1989 they released their iconic color poster that featured Ingres’s odalisque with a gorilla mask followed by the question Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?. The poster was a result of the group's articulation of an enormous number of female nudes found in the Modern Art sections of The Met. The poster was eventually rejected by the Public Art Fund in New York and was installed in advertising space on New York City buses until the bus company canceled it.
Although La Grande Odalisque can be debated further in the context of the mentioned male gaze and the problematic agenda of Orientalism that tended to exploit the Other, the final argument is that this painting stands on a pedestal of pioneering modernist artworks for its subject, the way it was presented, and the ideas it nurtured.
Editors’ Tip: Ingres and the Studio: Women, Painting, History
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres has long been recognized as one of the great painters of the modern era and among the greatest portraitists of all time. Over a century and a half of scholarly writing on the artist has grappled with Ingres’s singular identity, his relationship to past and future masters, and the idiosyncrasies of his art. Ingres and the Studio: Women, Painting, History makes a unique contribution to this literature by focusing on the importance of Ingres’s training of students and the crucial role played by portraits—and their subjects—for Ingres’s studio and its developing aesthetic project. Rather than understanding the portrait as merely a screen onto which the artist’s desires were projected, the book insists on the importance of accounting for the active role of portrait sitters themselves. Through careful analysis of familiar and long-overlooked works, Ingres and the Studio traces a series of encounters between painters and portrait subjects in which women sitters—such as the artist Julie Mottez, art critic, salonnière, and historian Marie d’Agoult, and tragic actress Rachel—emerge as vital interlocutors in a shared aesthetic project..
Featured image: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres - La grande odalisque (The Grand Odalisque), 1814. Oil on canvas. Dimensions: Height: 91 cm (35.8 in); Width: 162 cm (63.7 in). Collection Louvre Museum Paris. Image creative commons.