Starting from the second half of the eighteenth century, the mainstream of European art was largely dominated by the movement of Neoclassicism. This movement presupposed relying on the subjects and standards of depiction established in the classical culture of the ancient world.
In painting, the golden age of Neoclassicism was represented by such outstanding artists as Jacque-Louis David and his pupil Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Although Ingres considered himself a keeper of the great traditions set by Raphael, he is recognized by critics for his innovatory trends that allow for considering him a precursor of modern arts. One of the examples combining Ingres’ trends both for conservatism and innovation can be found in his oil on canvas La Grande Odalisque painted in 1814 to order of Napoleon’s sister, Queen Caroline Murat of Naples. The artistic form Ingres chooses to realize his creative intentions features a whole range of expressive means and methods. The painting is set in the mysterious world of the East, with Oriental motives scattered all around the canvas. The splendor of the harem chamber finds its reflection via the exotic objects typical for the rich Oriental way of life. Heavy silk draperies with a pattern of peacock-feathers fans as if echo the shape and material of the fan the odalisque is holding in her hand. The fan is remarkable in itself: made of peacock feathers, with an ivory-and-gold handle and pearl embroidery, it celebrates the prosperity of its owner — or, at least, of the man who maintains her (Ingres).
The air is heavy with the incense burnt in the splendidly decorated chest in the bottom right corner. Next to it stands a water pipe, one of the most popular pastime amusement in the Oriental culture. The rich attire of the chamber is completed with a fur throw on the couch. A traditional turban on the odalisque’s head is also an object of luxury, decorated with heavy golden tassels.
Precious gems and gold are the materials for the odalisque’s jewelry adorning her head and hand. The mystery and luxury of the East is shown not only through the objects but also through the manner of their depiction. Rounded shapes and lines, expressive texture of fabrics, the smoothness of the woman’s skin, — all that adds to the overall impression of the painting. Ingres builds the composition around the body of the odalisque, placing her on the coach and surrounding with draperies. The color scheme is built on contrasts and helps to create the visual accents and the feeling of space in the canvas. While the odalisque’s body is painted in tender, transparent light tints and placed on a white sheet, the surrounding interior is done in darker colors to set off the central figure. Golden and blue are the colors dominating the middle ground, and the background is hidden in the dark-brown shade, as if concealing its mysteries from the onlooker. The subject matter of the painting is the odalisque, a concubine of a rich man in the East.
In a relaxed contentment, she lies on a luxurious couch, untroubled by any worries that may disturb ordinary people in their daily routine. In her hand she holds a fan which she has been using to wave away the heat of the day. Wallowing in luxury and waiting for her master to come is the only sense of her life. She passes her days in the lazy entertainment of her water pipe and jewelry, and her well-groomed body shows no signs of constraint or effort that may ever emaciate it.
Behind this outwardly attractive but idle form, a shrewd observer may discover deep and dramatic content. It appears that this depiction of luxury and outward satisfaction with idle life appeals to one’s mind by raising the issue of happiness. Trying to decipher the message Ingres left in his canvas, one wonders whether the odalisque, though living in clover, is really content with her life. What is it in her look she casts at the unexpected onlooker who has dared to disturb her seclusion? Is it a strict deprecation for trespassing her privacy? Or a disappointment that it is not her master who comes with new presents for her? Or a yearning for full-blooded life outside her golden cage? Depending on the observer’s point of view, it is possible to discern any of those feelings in the painting. Personally, it appears that the lonely naked figure of the odalisque represents her solitude and defenselessness against the backstage world of the rich man’s harem. The dark background of the picture symbolizes the forbidding jungle of the intrigues and conspiracies that catch the odalisque in their sticky net. She knows that she is not the sole woman of her master and that it is only her youth and bodily attractiveness that keeps her in the luxury. Should she grow old or simply fall into her master’s disgrace, her future is regrettable.
This drama of a seemingly satisfied woman who has every possible item of luxury appears to be the key message of the painting. While observing Ingres’ painting, I could trace how my attitude to it changed through analysis. At first I was impressed by the purely outwards features of the canvas.
The play of light and colors, the exotic objects, the playful pose of the odalisque entertained the eye and triggered a sense of excitement with the luxury and the splendor of the setting. After that initial drive, there came a sense of emptiness and wonder of what exactly was meant by a simple depiction of a woman lying in a richly decorated chamber. And only after analyzing the elements of the painting, after considering its form and content, it became possible to figure out the meaning and message of the canvas for myself. Connecting the formal means of expression in a coherent way provided the answer to the question of the hidden purpose of the painting and led to an unexpected turn in understanding it. The outward luxury and satisfaction of the odalisque appeared to be hiding her inner emptiness and tragedy of loneliness. This eye-opening view of the canvas would have been impossible without a detailed analysis and participation which definitely increased my understanding and appreciation of Ingres’ painting. The analysis of La Grande Odalisque by Ingres in terms of artistic form, subject matter, and content has allowed to reveal significant connections between the outward and the inner properties of the painting. It has led to discovery of the artist’s message which otherwise would have remained concealed from the eyes of a superficial onlooker.
Therefore, it can be concluded that the combination of those three elements of painting efficiently contribute to the observer’s understanding and appreciation of art.
Ingres, Jean Auguste Dominique. La Grande Odalisque. 1814. Louvre, Paris.