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Ingres, La Grande Odalisque

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Oil on canvas, 36" x 63" (91 x 162 cm), (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(smooth piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Louvre, looking at a painting by Ingres called the Grande Odalisque. - [Beth] Odalisque simply means a woman and a harem. - [Steven] But the Western conception of what a harem was versus what a harem actually was are two very different things. - [Beth] And Ingres never went to the Near East or North Africa so this isn't based on observation. This is entirely a Western fantasy. - [Steven] What we're seeing is this languid nude woman whose back is turned to us, and yet whose body is flexible enough for her head to turn back and look directly at us with a slightly coy eye. - [Beth] But also with a sense of reserve and distance. And so I think that's one of the tensions here is this beautiful female nude, but also the unavailability of her body and the slightly cold or distant gaze. - [Steven] Also, the coolness of the coloration and the perfection of the surface of the canvas. There is not a brush stroke to be seen. She seems unavailable because the hand of the artist is completely absent. - [Beth] Now the subject of the female nude goes back to ancient Greece and ancient Rome through the Renaissance with artists like Titian and Giorgione. But here in the 19th century in France, when artists painted the female nude, they continued that tradition of painting ancient Greek goddesses or mythological figures. And it was important for the new to be distanced. In other words, not a contemporary nude figure but distanced by time, that classical figure. - [Steven] This figure, however, is distanced by geography. - [Beth] I think it's important to remember that Napoleon only years before was in North Africa and the Near East. And so, although this was distant geographically to people in France, it was also exotic. And there was a real curiosity about this culture. - [Steven] Although we don't see anything authentic here. - [Beth] Ingres from this neoclassical tradition of David. - [Steven] He was David's most famous student. - [Beth] And so part of the lack of any visible brush strokes the emphasis on line and contour these are all things that are part of that neoclassical tradition - [Steven] But he's willing to distort the body much more than David ever was. In fact, her body seems impossible. Her back is simply too long as if there are extra vertebrae. Her left leg, where would it attach to her thigh? - [Beth] Even her left calf is way too long. And one part doesn't seem to attach to another. And yet we don't notice those things when we first approach this painting. Which I think speaks to Ingres goal, which was to create something that was ideal and beautiful and that naturalism, that illusion of reality, in terms of anatomy, wasn't as important. - [Steven] Don't make the mistake that Ingres didn't understand human anatomy. These were distortions that were quite purposeful. - [Beth] The nude is surrounded by this lush environment of embroidered satins and silks and jewels and pearls, and that peacock feathered fan that brushes against her thigh. In a way it seems to me that there's a coolness about her but a sensuality in her surroundings. - [Steven] This is a painting that really is a tease. It is luxurious in every way. From the pipe on the right, to the satins, to the silkiness of her skin. And yet the figure and the location are completely unavailable to the viewer. She's both present and absent in a way. - [Beth] I'm noticing the way that that left elbow presses into that pillow, giving us a sense of the weight of her body and that lovely turban and jewels around her head. - [Steven] Look at the composition, look at the way that the turn of her nose leads into her shoulder, runs down the curve of her right arm and is picked up by the curtain that loops back up creating a kind of continuous inverse arc. - [Beth] It is those lovely shapes that make one forget about those anatomical inaccuracies. It is the ideal beauty that Ingres has presented us with here. - [Steven] And it's because of that, that this painting, and Ingres career in general, is often seen as a hinge between the neoclassical and romanticism. (smooth piano music)