This weeks post is about a topic of painting rather than a specific painter.

During the 19th century a certain number of Western countries packed their travel bags and journeyed East into countries like Turkey, Egypt and Iran (which was still known as the mythical Persia back then). While they were there, Western artists found a lot of things to inspire them in their paintings; the beautiful landscape, the exotic wildlife and of course, beautiful women. Lots of beautiful women.

Odalisque (pronounced Oh-Da-Lisk) is a word that refers to women slaves of a Harem. ‘What is a Harem?’ I hear you cry. A Harem is section of a Muslim household which is specifically meant for woman. Men are usually forbidden to enter the Harem. The word itself can translate more or less as ‘Forbidden place’ – Very romantic, no? The Odalisque is the lowest member of the household chain, serving the others. Also, despite the way they are portrayed in most paintings, their sexuality isn’t actually part of their job description – although if they were really good, they could aspire to become concubines. But I think most of the painters ignored this fact and most the women in Odalisque paintings are the women of leisure themselves.

So, you know when you’re young and thinking about your girl friends having sleep overs. Usually we imagine them having pillow fights, modelling their underwear and comparing boob sizes. I think this is probably what the Western artists of the 19th century thought when they were told abut the Harem. And so, we are left with hundreds if not thousands of paintings that fall under the Odalisque name, which feature beautiful, exotic women of leisure in various states of undress.

Les Odalisques – Jacqueline Marval – 1903
Just moments away from a pillow fight!

Out of the hundreds of Odalisque paintings and artists I’m just going to select a few to speak about.

La Grande Odalisque – Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres – 1814

First; The Grand Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867) was a French Neoclassical painter. The Grand Odalisque was commissioned by the Queen of Napels, Caroline Murat (who also happened to be Napoleon’s sister). It is often cited as the work that broke Ingres away from the Neoclassical into Romanticism.

The Turkish Bath – 1863

Now there’s a few fun facts about this painting. Most of which revolve around the fact that this poor girl is all out of proportion. This is actually a running theme in Ingres’ paintings, especially when portraying his female models. It has been noted that her spine is 3-5 vertebrae too long and that her limbs are all different lengths. Many critics pointed this out, saying they were mistakes or the result of poor figure studies. However this is most likely not the case. Ingres, in his paintings was searching for the perfect female form, and that meant the perfect form relating to him, and the subject of his work. This girl here is a lady of pleasure and seduction. As such, Ingres distorted the length of her back and pelvis area to highlight this.

Another thing to consider – Does she look Middle-Eastern to you? She doesn’t to me. Actually she looks rather French indeed, and it is most likely that she was painted as a tribute to the French beauties of the day, but put into an Orientalist context.

Ingres continued with this theme of Orientalism. One of his most famous paintings in this theme is The Turkish Bath. If you look closely you’ll see more examples of Ingres deforming the woman as a way to reach his ideal form.

Another artist I like is Georges Antoine Rochegrosse. Simply because his paintings are B-E-A-Utiful. Rochegrosse (1859 – 1938) was French and dealt with historical and decorative paintings. His paintings are usually epic on scale and can be quite gruesome at times. I will follow up with a post dedicated to Rochegrosse at some point. But for now I’m just looking at his Odalisque paintings. Look at these:

Aren’t they beautiful? Note the similarities between the two. The posture, the window in the back, the placement of the  curtains. Maybe they’re sisters?

And finally, Mariano Fortuny. Fortuny (1838 – 1874) was Spanish this time. Or actually, I should specify; he was Catalan. He was also a historical painter and did a wide verity of scenes depicting Spanish political and social issues. A lot of military paintings. For me though, it’s just the way he paints people. I think they’re beautiful and so expressive. So here are two of his Odalisque paintings. It’s the same woman; notice her ankle and arm bands. I think she’s great. So elegant and lovely – and she knows it. That’s what I like about her, she’s kind of cheeky. These were the first two Odalisque paintings I ever saw actually, whilst I was in Barcelona last year.

Right, I know I didn’t go into that much detail about Rochegrosse or Fortuny, but that’s because I want to give each of them a post of their own soon. But before I do this I want to address a certain subject related to this one. Women with Mirrors – A lot of these pictures (like the one above) feature these women looking at themselves in mirrors and I’d like to talk a little bit about what this might mean. A bit of feminist theory maybe? We’ll see.



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