The Odalisque: Celebration of the Female Form or Misogyny?

The “Odalisque” which literally means female slave or member of a harem, has a long history in art, and here are some of my favorites. A celebration of the female form, there has always been a certain tension between the sacred and the profane imbued in this motif that reflects the particular moment in time of the culture it is created in. For a long time, naked woman were only allowed to be depicted in biblical or mythologic scenes. Centuries of this practice was shattered in the mid 19th century, most notably, and explicitly, by Manet.

For me this Ingres is the gold standard. The elongation and exageration of shapes creates a very radical abstraction  and incredible elegance, within a “realistic “ mileau. The draughtmanship  and painterly texture are superb. It is more a study in form than a provocative statement.  It devastates me every time.

Titian’s version, below, is a powerful combination of the dramatic and the sensual. Color, form, composition, brushwork, it’s electric! The setting is mythological but the intent, unabashedly sensual.

Tintoretto’s version, above right, though biblical in it’s supposed theme, seems more like a secular drama, though portrayed naked.

Rubens painting, below, another biblical morality play, is full of pulchritude and joyful sensuality. An unabashed celebration of the female , yet without being titilating or licentious.

Veronese, above right, in this mythological scene, is somewhere between the sacred and the profane. The Delacroix, however, below, seems a fevered dream of lust and sexuality.

In Velasquez, above, so richly rendered, the image seems explicitly sensual in the casual, satisfied, self regard of the figure.

WIth this Goya, however, we have a whole different story. Here the subject makes no pretense of being involved in a game of cat and mouse. She explicitly presents herself to us, and without the least bit of shame. This heralds a major change in approach.

Eduoard Manet

This Manet, above, is a direct response to the Goya, but painted in a much more matter of fact approach that almost says, “been there, done that.” It is an incredibly gorgeous painting, “in the flesh.” A total tour de force. It sets the stage for his seminal piece below, “Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.”

Here, the cat is out of the bag. Manet used the same model, his mistress, Victorine Meurend, but here, her casual nudity juxtoposed with the fully clothed men, enjoying a friendly picnic, bespeakes a sea change in the the moral/sexual climate. In 1863, this painting scandalized France. Sex, nudity, and, in a way, women’s right to be liberated from traditonal societal roles is thrown into question. From here on out, the female form needs not be couched in context of myth or stringent societal parameters, but is free to be celebrated, or misused, as the artist chooses.

By the time Matisse did this piece, the nude woman was simply a piece of formal drapery. There is no scandal, no forced historical, biblical, or mythological reference. This picture seems more like a simple “slice of life.”

In this Picasso, his “Odalisque after Ingres,” we have now come  to a purely formal abstraction.




There is no question that the female form has been one of the most persistent and captivating subjects for artists – who have been mostly male – throughout time. Woman has been celebrated, in the history of art, as God’s greatest creation, but also, used to serve the purient interests of a controlling male patrimony. The female form has almost always been the ultimate measure of beauty, in terms of form, in art. Perhaps had we evolved as a matriarchal society, that would not be true. But, in society, as in art, there has always been this tension between the sacred and the profane in the male view of women.

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39 Comments on "The Odalisque: Celebration of the Female Form or Misogyny?"

  1. kathy says:

    Fantastic post, on such an interesting subject. As a woman, and an artist, I’ve thought about many of the questions you’ve raised. Dejeuner sur L’Herbe is a painting I remember looking at with my grandmother in a book and asking why the woman was nude and the men were clothed? It obviously bothered me some as a child and I believe the answer she gave to me spoke more of misogyny rather than celebration. I can imagine the scandal it created at the time it was painted.
    And I love how you point out that in the Matisse, the woman is now part of the drapery – it’s an acute observation that I wouldn’t have realized.

  2. Michael Legnon says:

    The female mystique appears to be interpreted in either goddess/eve/madonna or the whore-sinner/succubus, and mostly by male artists in the past. From the Venuses of Willendorf of the paleolithic to the emerging masculinity and femininity of the neolithic, the primitives seemed to revere the need to worship the childbearing giver of life, the Earth Mother. Somewhere, as humans evolved into an agrarian society that actively mobilized and founded communities where roles were truly defined, a shift of sexual levelization took place; categories were formed to “describe” the importance and placement in this new forming societal occurrence. The equality of every person, due to the need for using everyone available to survive, became less urgent. Thus, that leads to the madonna/whore concept used to depict women as saintly, motherly or as the user/seducer and killer of men.

    This is shown in the art used in this post. The evolution from life giving Gaia to the whore of Babylon and the mix of the two in many instances are like the twins, sex and love. Independent of one another yet symbiotic; these twins are never too far apart. The classification and objectification of women’s lives, depicted through the ages in all art forms, stem on one’s subjective viewpoint of the female gender.

  3. David Leeds says:

    I think your comment is incredibly perceptive, and dead on. I would add that I believe there is a large psychological component in that shift from the more primitive, female worship Gaia, state, to the more role structured agrarian social organization and stigmatization. I think that as the more complicated, but limiting, in terms of individual role and identity, society developed, man acted out on the subconscious or semi-conscious realization that they were basically a footnote to the the strongest, most primal, necessary, and sublime action of the species, which is carrying and giving birth to children. Perpetuation of the species is the strongest genetic and behavioral impulse we have. Man was necessary as the sperm provider and bodyguard, but removed from the awe-inspiring mystery and power of procreation. In a way, you could say misogyny is basically ” sour grapes.”

  4. Michael Legnon says:

    I agree David. And that is when the female was purposely subjugated. She had too much power and was magical. Excuse this graphic statement , but bleeding and still surviving must have been magic to the neanderthals and early H. Erectus. Imagine the divine in realizing She not only as a life giver, but a survivor of giving life.

  5. Scott Kahn says:

    What strikes me about each of the examples you’ve chosen is the remarkable differences reflecting not only the subtle changes of attitude towards this subject, but the vastly different personalities of the artists who painted these paintings. Each and every one reveals so much about the artists themselves, above and beyond the historical context.

  6. David Leeds says:

    Scott, that’s part of what I find so endlessly interesting about studying the history of art. No two people execute or see the same problem, the same way. You always see both the distinctive individual hand, plus the larger historio-cultural
    context of the particular time acting unconsciously through the individual.

  7. David, this is so fascinating. You have taken us through the history of the “Odalisque” and in such an interesting way. I have always loved the two paintings by Manet — the Odalisque and Dejeuner. I did not know about all the other Odalisques. So much of what I love about studying art and literature is the historical context of things and this is what your blog is inspiring me to read about — the context of these art works. I now want to learn more and that is a great fringe benefit of reading your blog, inspiring us to further study of the topic you have discussed. I am very intrigued by this topic. Bravo!

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks again Sunday for your generous comment. For me, as well, it is the mirror that art holds up to us as individuals and as a society, to locate and measure ourselves that is its real power. And Manet…well he’s on my very short list of most favorite painters ever. It’s also him who got me to deeply appreciate Velasquez and Goya, who were huge influences on him.

  8. metscan says:

    An amateurish opinion is all I am able to give, and therefore- naturally the Picasso painting is the only interesting one for me.
    Your post is very thorough, thank you for it. Usually I pass all these curvy ( yak ) paintings, but this time I really took time to look at them.

    • David Leeds says:

      Mette, for someone to like the Picasso is hardly amateurish, but rather very sophisticated. I always find it interesting to look at a variety, through time, of
      one subject matter. Still life, landscapes, scenes of domestic life, etc.It tells so much about the attitude of the time. I really appreciate your careful reading of all the posts.

  9. what bothers me about these painting … ms. kahlo. or mary cassete, or other great women had no need for this subject, it reminds me of lines in a john lennon song “we make her paint her face and dance” i hope this doesnt sound rude. as far as a husk of meaning goes, i find it wonderful , stimulating and inspiring. thank you for the hard work putting this together.

    • kathy says:

      Not rude at all, in fact, it was part of the title of the blog and a good question for debate and thought. It’s hard as a woman to see these paintings and not feel objectified in a sexual way, and yet, also feel celebrated. An ambivalent feeling for me as I view these Odalisques. And yet, as paintings, subject aside, I think they’re so beautiful.

  10. David Leeds says:

    Margaret, not rude at all. That was part of the point of the whole idea of celebration vs. misogyny. The depiction of the female form has been such a large part of the history of the visual arts. And, indeed, those two great female painters, both of whom I love, attacked the world through the lense of their own histories. Both, as different as they were in sensibility, were crucial champions of the female perspective.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard