Ask Morgana 162: Ingres

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It seems logical to follow a post on Tamara de Lempicka with some examples of work by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Ingres was a breathtakingly brilliant portrait-painter, and indeed I prefer his portraits to anything else he produced – classical scenes, religious subjects, nudes, anything! However, in this post I intend to show you four paintings and, peripherally, one study of the female nude, executed between 1807 and 1862, starting with the one I consider to be his least deliberately erotic and ending with the one I consider to be his most.

‘La Grande Odalisque’, (1) above, is anatomically impossible, and deliberately so. The body is elongated, the back given three extra vertebrae. Eroticism is not the object. What Ingres appears to be doing is searching for an ideal, for perfection of form, not for depiction of reality. Despite the subject of the painting being a courtesan and naked, and despite the suggestively phallic shape of the handle of the fan she is holding, this is a mannered painting, not a sexy one. Nevertheless, this painting was appropriated by the ‘Guerilla Girls’ for their pointed protest about the number of female nudes exhibited at the Met.*

Painting (3) below is from 1807, and is the half-figure of a bather. Earlier than the painting at the head of this post, it is both more realistic and, I would say, more deliberately erotic. There is as little ‘on show’ as in ‘La Grande Odalisque’, but there is a sense of vulnerability, of modesty surprised.

Painting (4) is Ingres’ 1842 orientalist work ‘Odalisque with a slave’. The figure of the courtesan, is voluptuous, her arms thrown back in abandon, her body curled, while her slave plays the oud. The hiding of her pubis is coy, but it is the type of coyness that draws attention. Disregarding a model’s womanhood and pubic curls is a deliberate device in Ingres’ work, though we can see from a study (2) that he was quite aware of the reality. His public nudes conformed to a neo-classical aesthetic, based perhaps on the perceived purity of ancient marble statues, but also they ‘suggested by concealing’. In that respect, see also the slaves almost-revealed breasts. The passivity of the eunuch in the middle-background teases the viewer of the painting, mocking the cold eye of the art critic, while the fan-handle, the hookah, and the neck of the oud are all phallo-suggestive.

Painting (5) is Ingres’ famous ‘Turkish Bath’, executed in 1862. He captioned the painting ‘AETATIS LXXXII’ to point out that he was still capable of high eroticism at the age of 82. The painting was originally rectangular, but the artist re-presented it in circular form. Although it is orientalist in concept, the vast majority of its female subjects have European colour and features – Ingres is conscious of his target audience! Some of the figures are re-workings from earlier works: the central oud-player recalls his ‘Valpinçon Bather’, and the reclining woman with her arms thrown back recalls the main subject of painting (4), although she is actually taken from a quick life-drawing of the artist’s wife. [NB: the latter figure has something of Ingres’ anatomical distortion, as the raised right arm and lowered shoulder contradict each other.] Other figures are languid (the woman perched on the edge of the bath), posed (the dancer), indifferent (the woman with her arms folded), or suggest Sapphic dalliance (the couple next to the woman reclining on the blue cushion). Deliberately sensual, deliberately erotic, this painting passed from private (male) owner to private (male) owner, and is now in the Louvre.

* For those of you who don’t know them, the Guerilla Girls are a group of feminist-activist artists formed in New York in 1985 with the mission of bringing gender and racial inequality within the fine arts to focus within the greater community.

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Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ provisions.

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