INGRES, Jean-Auguste-Dominique
(b. 1780, Montauban, d. 1867, Paris)

The Grand Odalisque

Oil on canvas, 91 x 162 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The effects in Ingres' paintings largely depend on drawing and linearity, but he also used colour to supremely calculated effect. The cold turquoise of the silk curtain with its decoration of red flowers intensified the warm flesh tone of the Grande Odalisque. This nude was painted in 1814 for Napoleon's sister, Queen Caroline Murat. Unlike the realism of Goya's Maja, Ingres' nude is hardly intimate, the eroticism here emerging slowly from the reserve and the questioning, assessing glance of the naked woman. This is a tradition that goes back to Giorgione and Titian, but Ingres has painted a living woman and not an allegory of Venus. Nevertheless, the realistic intimacy is lessened by setting the scene in the distant world of the Orient.

For many in the West, the idea of the harem with its available or exploited women trapped in their own closed world was as much proof of the fallen or primitive state of the East as was its supposed savagery. But it was also infinitely titillating. Ingres's picture is more than this, however. A sense of loss was inevitably embodied in French perceptions of the East after their defeat in Egypt, and it was perhaps because it sublimated unattainable desires that the theme of the Oriental nude, bather or harem girl gained such a haunting appeal. Ingres is remarkable for combining a frank allure with a chilling perfection of flesh. He had picked up his discreet hints of the harem — a turban here, a fan there — from Oriental artefacts and miniatures in the collections of Gros and Denon. They serve to locate his nude, who otherwise could really belong anywhere, in a sensuous Orient of the imagination.