I have a special fondness for a particular painting in the Louvre Museum in Paris: “La Grande Odalisque,” painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1814. The original painting was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Queen Caroline Murat of Naples. (Early Popes invented “nepotism,” installing their nephews as Cardinals. But Napoleon I took nepotism many steps further, installing family members on thrones all over Europe during the ten-year period when he was Emperor).
There is something a little off-kilter about this image. Scientific analysis provided the reason, shortly after the painting first appeared in public: too much backbone. The painter Ingres defied all the known laws of anatomy and classical beauty in order to create a romanticized exotic image from an imagined Sultan’s harem. In order to enhance the sensuous curves of the woman’s body, Ingres painted this lady with at least five extra vertebrae. I guess she is alluring, if a little disconcerting. If you ask me, she looks quite a bit like a weasel.
I prefer my own Odalisque, a lady I rescued from a garage sale one fall afternoon.
The artist who painted this very good copy was one M. Feste, signed in red in the corner. The copy shows just the Odalisque’s head and shoulder. I found her canvas leaning against a wall, in danger of being stepped on. My private Odalisque doesn’t suffer the indignity of having a ridiculously elongated backside. Now she just gazes calmly back over her shoulder at anyone entering my bathroom, confident in her exotic beauty.
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!