La Grande Odalisque Essay

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres was born on August 28th, 1780. He became one of Jacques-Louis David’s most famous and successful students. During Ingres time working with David, and eventually turning away from him, he became a part of the Neo-Classicism movement; leaving behind, but not forgetting the Romanticism methods. Neo-Classicism is the 18th century restoration of tradition principles which lead Ingres to be one of the most famous draftsmen. Ingres was an extremely precise and talented man of his time and was most famous for his portraits; especially his portraits of female nudes.

In the year 1814, Ingres created one of his most famed masterpieces, La Grande Odalisque. It was created in Paris and still remains there in the museum by the name of The Musée du Loure. The painting is well-known for its subject of fantasy and eroticism; she was a passive, mysterious and an unknown being to the Western world, which made her audience long for answers.

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Throughout Ingres life he created many pieces of work.

In his well ahead years, Ingres continued to paint and surprise his faultfinders. He eventually ended up on top, being viewed as “one of the greatest living artists in France” during that time. (Rifkin 15) He left behind many fans but no apprentices to carry on the Neoclassicism heritage. Ingres painted many historical, mythological, and religious subjects; however, he is probably most respected for his portraits and female nudes. Ingres’s style highlights skilful formations, along with smoothly painted surfaces, and very thorough drawings. “In 1814, he created one of his many famous masterpieces, Grande Odalisque. It is 91 cm in height and 162 cm in length (35.8 × 63.8 in).” (Peirce 50) It is an oil painting on canvas, with a subject of make-believe and sexuality. The painting was commissioned by Queen Caroline Murat of Naples, Napoleon’s sister. It was painted in the Neoclassicism movement in Paris, along with many of his other works.

This one in particular is of a nude female, who transpires to be an odalisque. “An odalisque was a female slave in an Ottoman seraglio, especially the Imperial Harem of the sultan.” (Peirce 54) La Grande Odalisque was formed by Ingres using some of David’s ideas and creating a female nude, in a bizarre and unfamiliar way. To the Western world she was nothing like they’d ever seen before, which caused confusion but a desire to want to know everything about her; “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 forth fears and desires.” (Shelton 75) This was mainly because of the way in which Europe considered Islamic Asia; they viewed the people there as unique, barren and careless. To observers she was located in an almost make-believe world, much like how Western culture viewed the Eastern side of the world; fantasized.

At the time it was ignominious for its physical wrongness; in specific, “the nude female was thought to have three lumbar vertebrae too many”. (Shelton 78) It was an opinion stressed by art critics, but was never challenged or proven. When it had finally been studied, they found something out of the regular, “we measured the length of the back and of the pelvis in human models, expressed the mean values in terms of head height, and transferred them to the painting.” (Peirce 81) The falsification was found to be greater than what had been presumed originally; “La Grande Odalisque had five, rather than three, further lumbar vertebrae”(Peirce 81). Basically, she is structurally impossible; her pose is one that would be impossible to mimic. Since Ingres combined rationality and realism into his paintings some critics believe the deformation may perhaps exist on purpose and stand for an emotional motive.

The way in which the woman’s head is placed and how it the distance it is away from her pelvis suggests, “the artist may have been marking the gulf between her thoughts and her social role” (Shelton 79) The face of the woman is where the observer’s eyes are drawn. Her expression is secluded, care-free and mysterious; giving her an almost secret filled feel about her. Her role as a harem is not to think of feeling; she is there only for the purpose of pleasure. “This theme is consistent with the role of women in the nineteenth-century views on female gender roles — “public women,” i.e., prostitutes, fulfilled a vitally important social role as repositories of male sexual desire.” (Siegfried, Rifkin, Willey 34) Her gaze pulls viewers into her unknown world; captures and traps. The main reason for her existence is to wait upon a man, but not just any man; her husband.

With knowing that her husband is the only man to ever see her in this state, the viewer is pulled in and knowing they will never be able to experience her, “she was part of the sultan harem, she was there to satisfy the carnal pleasures of the sultan, despise what she may feel or want. She reflects a woman´s deep thoughts, complex emotions and feelings.”(Peirce 48) Her gaze tortures the viewer into looking and makes it difficult to look away. This piece is full of sensuality, mystery and romanticism. The woman is surrounded by a dark background; black with many different shades of blue. Her and her body are really the only aspect of the painting holding any light colours.

With this, she stand out to the viewer; making her more striking than ever. Even with her imperfections she is blessed with flawless skin, shoulders, legs, arms and hands. The items nearby her, the peacock fan, the turban, and the pearls suggest an unfamiliar place; an exotic place. At her feet lies a hookah, which may come to the viewers as a shock; it’s not for tobacco but rather opium. The harem may come off to observers as irrational, passive and drugged, which creates more desire to know what she’s about. Is she offering it, or is she just high? That is a question that will never be answered, a question that keeps the viewers’ attention.

La Grande Odalisque is what Western society believes a harem would look like. She is of the unknown but in a way that it becomes familiar. Since this is what the Western part of the world imagines and fantasizes about Islamic Asia, it makes them believe they are superior to what’s in front of them. Ingres conveyed his subject of wants and desires by painting La Grande Odalisque, and having the Western part of the world view it; you want what you can’t have. That is one way in looking at it, another is: “Some art historians have suggested that colonial politics also played a role.” (Shelton 81) Either way, Ingres combined what was happening to the world around him, two places so unfamiliar colliding together, with what the Western world wanted to see; what is actually happening is a completely different story than what one wants to believe is happening.

La Grande Odalisque is recognized for its subject of desire for the unknown; her gaze, her pose, and the inferior, yet exotic, items surrounding her are what makes her so incredible to what people consider the norm. She has deficiencies but her overall appearance is perfect; she is nothing like her observers, which makes her that much more wanted; it’s a conflict between La Grande Odalisque and the viewer. Society, even today, is scared of the unfamiliar. We take situations, events and even the little parts in life that we are unsure of and turn it into something that can be confronted, even if it’s not reality; it’s what human beings do to feel safe from what we consider the abnormal. What makes this painting so unique is that people critique the way in which viewers see her, instead of the way she sees us; she is an unacquainted with us, as we are with her.

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