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

  1. Lauren says:

    More than the prominence of the nude female as object of admiration I find the disappearance of the nude male post-Renaissance fascinating. Why does the male body become covered? In the older motif of the gods that Manet’s painting mimics Zeus is also “liberated” and naked, why are Manet’s men clothed? I would argue that the female body as standard of beauty is not tied to patriarchal society, something else is going on (wish I knew what). The Greeks were a patriarchal society and yet held the male body in equal if not greater esteem as the female one. Makes me wonder. (beware of over-generalizations… always is too easy)

    • David Leeds says:

      Lauren, you raise a good question. What you see about the Greeks is certainly true. I found an interesting statistic about the Metropolitan Museum, that less than 3% of artists there are women, and 83% of the nudes are female. That doesn’t exactly speak to your point, and is not broken down by time periods. I need to think about this a little more and do some research.
      Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. yes they are master paintings done by the great master the beauty is there but i think of women through the ages , and the views have been rather limited to femme fatale. sex object or dragon lady or…. the madonna? of which i can not claim any connection im just me.

  3. Eliana Delbuck says:

    Reading this post made me feel that I was in a classroom been taught by one of those brilliant, inspiring teachers…and the comments, the great papers the inspired students turned in.

    I’m grateful – I’m learning so much. It’s hard to pick a favorite among these masterpieces but I find the Velazquez and the first Manet especially beautiful!

    Happy Father’s Day Professor.

  4. craigleavitt says:

    With relish, I add my name to bring me more enlightenment of mind. I expect that means w/out egoic tendencies I’ve owned in life.

  5. edward jamieson says:

    this was an acceptable way to paint women with ‘their kit off’. wrapping it up in classical allusion. Dejeuner sur L’Herbe broke through that & showed the closer truth of our interest in the female form.

  6. Curator says:

    Déjeuner sur l’herbe is not an image of a ‘friendly picnic’, but two prostitutes and their clients in a Parisian park, a practice still used to this day there: Hence why one woman is washing post coitus, the two friends are having a chat ignoring the women they have simply paid for a service received, and only the women are without clothing due to their gainful employment. It scandalised Paris as an enormous canvas and blatant execution of a well known, but non the less little discussed profession. A ‘seminal piece’ it most certainly is.

  7. I’m painting my own “Odalisque” just now– after several dreams featuring a “Miss Polly”. Love reading your “light-step” approach to this subject.

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  9. Nol Nah Nod says:

    These paintings are not about representing attractive women, folks.
    Art is metaphorical. The reclining female nude – entirely passive, vulnerable and available – is a metaphor for the receptive, available nurturing natural world, ripe for exploitation by a male culture. The dichotomy of female Nature bent to the will of male Culture is ancient and ubiquitous in western thought, particularly since the advent of industrialism when the theme of the odalisque achieved popularity.
    Haven’t you observed any westerns closely? The female character – usually attractive but a bit rough – is bound to the earth, (the ranch, homestead, or in similar grinding servitude, the whore house). The male character, the quintessential pastoralist, is free to roam, to take advantage of every opportunity as it arises to tame, save or use woman/Nature as he pleases.

  10. FatherJon says:

    Can’t beat a nicely rounded female arse. Mind you, you can, and it makes a lovely sound, one hand clapping a naked behind :-)

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