Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - The Great Odalisque

by Thyra Guenther-Lübbers


Close and yet so far away. Due to her nudity and the closeness of the body to the edge of the picture, the odalisque, which means "harem servant", seems very close to the viewer. On the other hand, her cool gaze and the beauty of her entire appearance seem removed from the world of the viewer. She turns her naked body away from the viewer and also the fabrics, cushions and draperies that surround it with their cold blue and silver tones as well as the dark, blurred background create distance. There doesn't seem to be a spark of warmth in the image. Her look, although we see a harem servant, if not slave in front of us, has something commanding. The richly decorated peacock fan, her turban and the incense burner, along with opium pipe allow a location in the Orient. 

The viewer wants to see perfect beauty in the young woman, and yet her body proportions are completely distorted, her pose forced-unnatural. Her back is overlong, as is her right arm, which on top of that seems to have no elbow. And also the position of her left leg could not be held in this way for a long time. The jury of the Paris Art Salon, where the work was exhibited in 1819, also saw it this way and gave it a sharp critique. The actual intention of the artist was completely ignored. Ingres, who, a child of his time, was a great believer in classicism, did not aim for a naturalistic rendering; rather, the anatomy here was to follow the more pleasing and sensual line. The line consequently dominates color and composition . Thus, the back represented only by a long curved line, the elongated arm and the wide hips of the odalisque can be explained. Although the distortion gives the picture something bizarre, the young woman is also surrounded by something mysterious and above all sensual, which also comes from the atmospheric lighting from a source on the left edge of the picture, which remains hidden from the viewer.

In addition to the sense of sight, Ingres also challenges the viewer's sense of touch and smell. The feel of the various fabrics, such as velvet or silk, and also the surfaces of the peacock feathers are reproduced in such detail that the viewer believes to feel them gliding between his fingers at the mere sight of them. It is similar with the incense burner, from which billows of smoke waft up. As a viewer, one almost imagines oneself enjoying the intoxicating smoke. By evoking various senses in the viewer, Ingres allows him to develop associations. One believed to come a bit closer to the languid, erotically charged atmosphere of the harem and yet, as a mostly male, French viewer of the early 19th century, one was only chasing a fantasy. Paradoxically, however, this work also sprang only from the fantasy world of the artist, for he had never been to the Orient. And even if he had been there, which would not have been absurd due to Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns, which founded Orientalism in the French pictorial world in the first place, he would still have been prevented from entering a harem. 


The harem, or rather the ladies of the harem, was to remain the most popular subject for the entire Orientalist movement, which was particularly popular with French and British artists, precisely because so many legends were entwined around it and there were no limits to the imagination as to what breathtaking things went on there behind closed gates. Through Orientalism, the harem ladies replaced the female figures of Greek mythology as the personnel of the nude works. Through the personification as such a lady, the representation of the naked female body was shifted to another cultural area and the western (male) viewer could enjoy it, morally unobjectionable.


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - The Great Odalisque

Oil on canvas, 1814, 91 x 162 cm, Musée du Louvre in Paris