The Grand Odalisque

7:00 AM


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Grand Odalisque, 1814

As European empires continued to expanded their territories through the 19th century, the African and Asian countries that once were only seen by the most adventurous explorers, such as Marco Polo, were gradually unveiled, and provided the Europeans endless fascination. The legends and tales about far-off lands and people provided Europeans with wild and exotic images about those mysterious terrains. Artists like Ingres captured those popular imaginations on their canvas. Here, Ingres presented his French fellowmen an invitation to the mysterious, licentious world to the east.

Commissioned by Napoleon's sister Queen Caroline Murat of Naples, (unfortunately she was no longer the Queen when the painting was finished), The Grand Odalisque depicts a concubine in the harem, surrounded by oriental settings, in a pose that reminds me of Titian's Venus of Urbino. It's hard for me to understand how her left leg connects to her pelvis. However, her elongated, voluptuous body nevertheless is of great sensuality. And her cold, distant yet inviting facial expression arouses just the right amount of excitement; she acknowledges the presence of the voyeur, yet only offering a restrained temptation. In a sense, it almost seems like the Orient invites the European to come to their world, which is understood by Europeans as with force. But one has to understand it's an European interpretation of the Eastern world. Several other Ingres's work, such as The Turkish Bath, present a similar theme. In a way, these images of sexually promiscuous women lure Europeans to conquer and march into their bedrooms; at the same time, they help justify colonial expansion in that such immoral culture needs Western guidance. After all, when looking at this painting, who would say no to her invitation?

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