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.
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.
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.