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Try This At Home

June 25, 2014

First posted 4/14/12


The Grande Odalisque, an odalisque being a harem girl, was painted in 1814 by a Frenchman by the name of Ingres (pronounced angry-without the y).  The French were queer at the time for anything having to do with distant cultures. They coined the term Orientalism, even though Grande Odalisque doesn’t resemble anyone who ever stepped out of the Orient. Still, isn’t she pretty? This was French Nineteenth Century pornography at its finest. A wife couldn’t get too upset if her husband ogled her; after all, she was art!


This lovely lady caused quite a stir when exhibited at the 1814 Salon in Paris. She instantly assumed her place in the grand tradition of painted female nudes, rivaling the languid ladies of Titian and Rubens. And there’s much to admire here. The enamel-like flesh tones, the tour de force rendering of the silk turban, fur, peacock feathers and jewelry, and the intoxicating steam rising from the pipe in the bottom right corner. These were intended to inspire an intoxication of arousal. As Jessica Rabbit said in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” But not everyone was happy with the way Grande Odalisque was drawn. Look closer and you’ll see why.



Salon attendees in 1814 were disturbed by a few things in this painting, such as the Scarlett O’Hara waist and an ass that makes J.Lo’s look flat as a halibut. Ignoring the odalisque’s feet, which are softer than a baby’s ass and look like they’ve never been walked on, I tend to focus on her breasts, if that’s what those are. Female breasts don’t spring from the sides of women like tumors, but our hottie has her back to us and Ingres didn’t want us to miss any of her perky curves, especially since they help sell copies of the painting. She also doesn’t have elbows; Ingres didn’t like elbows on women and banished them by covering them up or painting them out. Since he did so with camera-like realism, it takes a while to notice.


So, feet that have never been walked on, no elbows and boobs in the wrong place, and that’s not all that’s wrong with her. I’ve saved the best for last. But first a bit of back-story.


French wives got tired of their husbands salivating over the Grande Odalisque and decided to remedy the situation. They called in interior decorators to transform their boudoirs into harems. They dashed off to the Dollar Store for a few peacock feathers and ran to Turbans-R-Us for headgear. They wanted to win back their husbands by assuming the position of Grande Odalisque. But they couldn’t because Ingres gave his lady three or four extra vertebrae to create the pinwheel composed of her bejeweled hand, the fan, the flesh of her calf and the blue silk drapery.


Masterful, but as women across France quickly noticed this pose was impossible to achieve without a freakishly long back. Ingres had distorted female anatomy to serve his artistic purposes by showing a composite, one that’s impossible to view from a single angle. He played with reality in a new way, yet brilliantly managed to create a breathtakingly beautiful image. Modern art was sniffing at the heels of an artist who, a hundred years before Picasso’s abstractions, created an image of female beauty that, the more you look, doesn’t resemble a flesh and blood woman at all.





Don’t believe me? Get naked and try to assume her position.






I have to support any post that encourages people to get naked. Comic book artists frequently follow the Ingre model on covers, posing female heroes in positions that are freakishly impossible. Not to mention the beach ball breasts and dime-sized waists. I think it's safe to assume they're all men too.
By: PT Dilloway on June 25, 2014
Miss Representation. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on June 25, 2014
The only thing that looks normal about this girl is her head and even that is a bit off! Her rear is ridiculous. Freaky! Of course, I have nary an ounce of artistic suavery about me, so what do I know.
By: Coloring Outside the Lines on June 25, 2014
she's always reminded me of a fish for some reason with slippery noodle arms.
By: TexWisGirl on June 25, 2014
I thought the back was weird, but side boobage is not all that uncommon.
By: Cranky Old Man on June 25, 2014
All that is noble with the female form has been in the artists eye... enhanced. I'd rather gaze at the real thing.
By: Daniel LaFrance on June 25, 2014
Methinks you should be working on a comprehensive review of Whistler's Mother for your next piece. Mrs. Chatterbox can't be that understanding.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on June 25, 2014
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By: The Bug on June 25, 2014
As always, a fascinating and instructive post. I think I should get credit for an Art Appreciation course as yours is certainly more interesting than some I took. While there is much to your lesson to remember, it's going to be difficult to forget the line " ass that makes J.Lo's look flat as a halibut."
By: Tom Cochrun on June 25, 2014
I remember you had written about this before...the first time, I looked at this painting, I couldn't see anything wrong with it until you pointed out all the impossible stuff. Today, I looked at it and immediately saw the distorted and impossible position. I'd say that's a great indicator of you being a wonderful teacher!
By: Pixel Peeper on June 25, 2014
I didn't notice any of the things you pointed out. I noticed her butt isn't physically touching her thighs, which have been blurred out. It's bizarre. But other than the hinky anatomy, the pictures composition is very striking. :)
By: Lexa Cain on June 25, 2014
Even feet that have never been walked on should not be so near a pipe. A pipe that goes in one's mouth! I am no fan of feet.
By: Val on June 25, 2014
I thought she was a bit off at first but once you picked her do deftly apart, I no longer can look at her with out smiling. Gracious, did he even use a real model.
By: Akansas Patti on June 25, 2014
It's rather beautiful and rather scary at the same time.
By: mimi on June 25, 2014
Okay, I'll believe you about the impossible position. After that There's much thought provoked by the piece. It's rather peaceful?
By: red on June 25, 2014
once again I've been educated- I always did think her derriere was enormous- but beauty is in the eye of the beholder I guess! I wonder how many portraits were created by envious wives? Now that would make an interesting art show!
By: Kathe W. on June 26, 2014
Thank you, Stephen. I thoroughly enjoyed this post -- now instead of alluring she looks decidedly strange!
By: The Broad on June 26, 2014
Before I got to your last paragraph, and when I first looked at her, her freakishly long, disproportionate back jumped out at me. Good thing it didn't hit me; I'd be dead. In fact, from the ass down, she looks like a Kardashian. The top half of her looks like a serpent with a tiny ladylike head. Sorry, I don't see the awesomeness of this one.
By: Robyn Engel on June 26, 2014
Stephen: I'd like to see a cable TV program featuring you painting and making observations. I agree that on the lower panel comparing the two paintings, the top painting is superior.
By: Michael Manning on June 26, 2014
I had a go at the contortions, and (surprise, surprise) I looked nothing like the sultry beauty in the painting. Fascinating stuff, as always.
By: Bryan Jones on June 27, 2014
I must say I enjoyed this post as it exposed the naked truth! :)
By: John on June 27, 2014
I'm sitting here naked after having reproduced the Grande Odalisque. You'll have to take my word for it. There's no one here to snap a photo.
By: Mitchell is Moving on July 11, 2014

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