Nicole Dattilio

Jean Auguste-Dominque Ingres was a 19th century French artist who was known for his agitated perfectionism, a quality that revealed itself in many of his works. Not only did he ardently repeat the same themes throughout his entire life and feature the same figures in different paintings, but he also aimed to perfect the images within his paintings. These images, specifically the female nude, were represented in such an idealistic way that it resulted in a form of perceived female beauty that reached beyond natural limits. Ingres' need for perfection exemplifies itself in his Odalisque works, in which he renders his frequently visited theme of the female nude in hyper-idealistic form.

The Grand Odalisque (Fig. 1) is one of Ingres' classic depictions of his female nude, an idealized type that would have been easily recognized at the time as a prostitute or slave. In places such as France, the idea of the oriental harem—a group of women that exist only to please their lord—was new in the early 19th century. Artists were just beginning to familiarize themselves with this particular culture, and Ingres was no exception. As suggested by Georges Wildenstein in the introduction to The Paintings of J. A. D. Ingres, "Ingres was enthralled by this oriental dream" (13).

This enticement is, in part, what inspired the artist to put so much focus into his portrayal of the female nude, and is also what created his need to represent her in such an ideal form. This woman in The Grand Odalisque (Fig. 1) is assumed to be part of an oriental harem, yet she appears Italian or French and is impossibly beautiful. Had Ingres been more truthful in his depiction of this slave, the woman in this painting would look a lot different.


Figure 1. Figure 2. Figure 3.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Grand Odalisque, 1814, oil on canvas, Paris, Musée de Louvre