La Grande Odalisque (1814) by J.A.D. Ingres
Analysis of Orientalist Painting of Female Nude

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La Grande Odalisque (1814)

La Grande Odalisque (1814) by J.A.D. Ingres.
Regarded as one of the greatest modern paintings of the 19th century.


Explanation of Other French Paintings


Name: La Grande Odalisque (1814)
Artist: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Orientalist painting
Movement: Neoclassical painting
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Analysis of La Grande Odalisque by Ingres

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).

La Grande Odalisque is a more explicit nude than the restrained Valpincon Bather, so Ingres transposes it to an orientalist setting, and significantly elongates the figure's torso, in order to demonstrate that this is a fantasy woman in a fantasy picture, not a real nude woman. (Note: Research shows that the figure was drawn with curvature of the spine, a distorted pelvis, five extra lumbar vertebrae, and one arm - the left - shorter than the other. This was done not because Ingres was ignorant of anatomy, but purely for stylistic effect.) In 1819, however, the year that the Odalisque was submitted to the Paris Salon, neither the French Academy nor the critics understood Ingres's style. As a result they criticized him for distorting anatomical reality.



Ingres repeated the Oriental setting in his harem picture, The Turkish Bath (1862, Louvre), which contained far more nudity than Manet's Olympia (1863, Musee d'Orsay) of the following year, but which - unlike Manet's painfully real composition - was deemed to be perfectly acceptable owing to its fantasy setting.

In La Grande Odalisque, the concubine is lying on a divan in a suggestive pose with her face turned towards us. Her arm guides our eye to the luxurious silk drapes, while her right foot and left elbow highlight the sumptuous velvet cushions. The cold aquamarine of the silk drape with its decoration of red flowers intensifies the warmth of the her flesh tones. (Note: For more about the pigments used by Ingres, see: 19th-Century Colour Palette.)

The painting includes several typical devices used by Ingres. Notice, for example, the lack of illusionary depth in the picture which focuses attention on the figure. She herself is, as usual, created with long, sinuous lines, while her skin is bathed in a diffused soft light, with none of the exaggerated chiaroscuro championed by Caravaggio (1573-1610) and his supporters. And as usual, the artist demonstrates his exceptional skill in rendering the different fabrics and surfaces, as well as the fine details of the turban, fan and curtains.

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).

For more about the impact of Ingres' art on twentieth century artists, see: Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30).

Explanation of Other French Paintings

Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717) by Jean-Antoine Watteau.

The Oath of the Horatii (1785) by Jacques-Louis David.

Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David.

• Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832) by J.A.D. Ingres.

• Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1856) by J.A.D. Ingres.


• For analysis of works by artists like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, see: Art Evaluation.
• For the meaning of other neoclassical paintings, see: Homepage.

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