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The painting Odalisque with a Slave by Ingres painted in 1839, is rendered with the utmost attention paid to details, nothing is spared from Ingres’s intensive bestowal of adornment. This intentional decision and along with the other aspects of the painting convey an idealized, almost over-exaggerated sense of luxury. There are three subjects represented in the work and each is stylized differently with various lightings, colors, and facial emotionality, all of which embody a possible message of racial and economic classes. The setting also plays into this ideology; not only placing the subjects in particular positions and locations, but also by adding to the sense of extreme opulence by pulling viewers’ eyes one way or another through the use of particular vantage points and through the variation of line directionality that is present within the work.
Beginning with the subjects– for I think they are the most demanding points in the painting– it is important to see the differences between them. Odalisque is clearly meant to be the main character, as she is the only one who is not only completely nude, but also bathed in this ephemerally radiant light. Her hair is uncovered and fanning around her in an almost halo-like fashion, giving more substantiality to the idea of her being goddess-like. Expensive silken robes are pooled around her as she takes in the musician and is waited upon by the slave, naming her as the center of activity and attention of both the individuals inside the painting and those viewing it. Despite such attentions, her complete relaxation is seen in her reclined posture and her heavy-lidded gaze. This gaze, however, subtly shifts attentions to the musician as one follows Odalisque’s look.
The musician is more clothed than Odalisque, yet there are still hints of sexualization through the delicate curve of the foot, the graceful arch of the neck, and the slightly exposed right breast. Her hair is hidden beneath a wrap, yet she is clad in what appears to be expensive clothing and several pieces of gold jewelry. The way in which one hand strums the instrument and the other holds the strings suggests movement, unlike Odalisque who is almost statuesque in her stillness. The musician is shown in less light than Odalisque, yet she maintains some of the same air because she is not quite in shadow either. These details of the musician pale in comparison with how Ingres has rendered her facial emotions. She seems to be melancholy above anything else, perhaps as a result of being required to perform for rich women such as Odalisque. Her eyes, though lacking the direct stare like Odalisque, point us to the next figure included in the painting, that of the slave. This figure is entirely within the shadows and is fully covered in clothing from head to toe in clothing that almost rivals the musician’s. Placed in the corner with hands folded, this character longingly stares off behind the musician at what appears to be a fountain. A key characteristic of this figure is that she is racially different than the other two; while they are fair skinned she is black.
On this line of thought, Ingres’s use of color and lighting in this work alludes to possible subliminal messages being conveyed. Overall, the colors used signify opulence. Gold is very prominent; creating the halo of Odalisque’s hair, shining as jewelry, coating the railing, and making up several supplementary pieces such as a crown and a hookah. Long known for its association with wealth, gold symbolizes that Odalisque is probably a very rich woman or at the very least, associated with someone rich. Red is also pronounced, and is interestingly linked with emotions, especially those of passion and desire. The other tones, including the various jewel shades, aid in creating an overall picture of affluent luxury. None of the brushstrokes are visible on the canvas meaning that there is no emotion added in this way, but this technique does work towards establishing a smooth color continuum and an articulate definition of detailing. The way in which Ingres places each character in a different type of lighting also suggests a socio-economic agenda.
Odalisque being the brightest, the musician being in the middle, and the slave being in the shadows hints at a quiet commentary on social strata of the era. This social stratification is what I perceive to be a major argument of the piece because it is replicated again and again through different mediums such as the light usage just mentioned. Ingres is attempting to set these women apart from each other while still incorporating them within a singular space, something I believe mirrors how there are a multitude of levels within society all cohabitating many of the same spaces.
Ingres’s use of line in this work allowed one’s vision to be led from one subject to another, while also hinting at the social differentiation. The gazes of the characters are the active guides from one to another, but interestingly the use of a more defined horizontal line for the railing adds a more harsh marker of the social (and possibly racial) differences; cutting the slave off from even the middle area that the musician occupies. In addition to these various horizontally running lines, the bright red-orange vertical columns act to broadcast where exactly the light in the room ends and to convey the depth of the room more generally. All the details in combination point to the idea that the choice of setting and model by Ingres may have also been a sort of social commentary on sex or desire, not unlike that made in Manet’s Olympia of 1856. This painting also portrays a nude woman in a brothel who is assumedly a prostitute and a black woman who appears to be serving her. The use of deep, rich colors, pooled silky fabric, and reclined posture of the models convey similar meanings. Both women are being sexualized, but are also sexual in their own regards. The difference is, however, that Odalisque is not in command of her sexuality while Olympia is. This disparity is seen in the gazes; Odalisque is looking away from the viewer of the painter, almost demurely, while Olympias penetrating look is directed straight out of the canvas.
The women’s poses are also slightly different. Odalisque’s body is all curves and demands the notion of gentility, while it also conveys a distinct softness. Her pubic area is not covered, just slightly obscured by her raised legs, again symbolizing that she is not the one who is ultimately in control in the situation. Olympia, on the contrary, is less coy. Her body is still curvy, but she is more alert and upright, and her hand is purposefully covering her pubic area. She remains an icon of sexuality in this way, but she is portrayed as more willful and sentient. Ingres’s smooth brushstrokes also convey a sense of a more refined sensuality, while Manet’s more rough strokes and hazy lines equate to a more realistic version of the scene.
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