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Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres - The Turkish Bath

by Thyra Guenther-Lübbers

A tondo! This is the term for a round painting. Round paintings are typical of the Italian Renaissance. Raphael, a great model of Ingres, often used them for religious themes. A tondo in the age of classicism, on the other hand, is extremely unusual. Initially, Ingres painted the work on a rectangular canvas. What exactly prompted him to cut it out round is not known. What is certain, however, is that the round format gives the work a different character. The viewer now perceives the scene as if through a keyhole. Involuntarily, one slips into the role of a voyeur. This adds even more tension to the already erotically charged picture.

The picture shows about 25 young women in a harem hamam. They are lying unclothed on orange-red cushions around a water basin on the left edge of the picture. They are making music, dancing, drinking coffee, eating food or smoking their hair. The majority of the ladies, however, are relaxing in sometimes lascivious poses. Their postures also give the work an air of languor and relaxation. Many of them wear gold jewellery and headdresses typical of oriental culture. Wearing these accessories puts their nakedness into perspective for the viewer's eye. However, the fantasy of this is fuelled by two incense objects. By depicting the smoke, Ingres wants to awaken the viewer's sense of smell and bring him a little closer to the scene - even if only in thought. However, there is no communication between the bathers and the viewer. This fact once again places the viewer in the role of voyeur.

The ladies can be divided into two groups. One group plays the foreground, the other fills the background. The figures in the foreground are depicted in a brighter light. Particularly kissed by the light and thus highlighted is the lady playing Tschégour, who turns her back to the viewer. Ingres dedicated a separate work to this back nude as early as 1808. The Bathers of Valpincon also hangs in the Musée du Louvre. More than 50 years lie between the creation of the Bathers and that of the Turkish Bath. The oriental theme of the harem thus occupied Ingres throughout his artistic life. And this despite the fact that he had never been to the Orient. His depictions are based solely on written sources, such as letters and his imagination. The Turkish Bath can be seen as a brilliant conclusion to this ongoing preoccupation. Here the artist shows once again that he is capable of depicting female bodies in every conceivable pose. To put it crudely, this means that he strings together one nude model from his studio after the next. The result is that the ladies, each in her own right, seem isolated and their gazes seem to stray into nothingness. Communication between them is limited and only takes place through gestures and not through eye contact.

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 nude works. By personifying them as such a lady, the representation of the naked female body was transferred to another cultural sphere and the Western (male) viewer could enjoy it, morally unobjectionable.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres - The Turkish Bath

Oil on canvas, 1862, 108 x 110 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres - The Turkish Bath

Oil on canvas, 1808, 98 x 146 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris


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