Odalisque paintings were hyper-pervasive icons of 19th-20th century art. These paintings are characterized by the reclining, nude, exoticised female figure surrounded by patterned decorations and furnishings Europeans believed to be emblematic of a Far East harem. In the 19th century, the West became very interested in Eastern countries and the Middle East— Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Persia (now Iran) — and became fascinated by harems. As a result, it became very popular for European women to dress up in far East costume for portrait paintings. Collectively, this is trend in art is referred to as Orientalism. Many artists visited these countries and began to paint scenes with models dressed in foreign garb that romanticized harems, exploiting women as sex objects by “othering” them with a foreign ethnicity. Some scenes painted by Orientalists were true to life, but most odalisque portraits were exaggerations of harems that failed to provide a comprehensive understanding of Far East culture.
Europeans believed and perpetuated the falsehood that harems were orgy-tastic retreats where wealthy, royal men kept their mistresses who were, of course, experts in sexual gratification; specifically experts on how to sexually gratify a man (in conservative European culture sex was not meant for proper women to enjoy). In reality, harems are far less explicate though no less interesting. Typically the harem housed several dozen women, including wives, the Sultan’s mother, daughters and other female relatives, as well as eunuchs and the slave girls who serve the aforementioned women. Sometimes the sons of the Sultan also lived in the Harem until they were of an appropriate age to appear in the public and administrative areas of the palace. Basically the harem was merely the private living quarters of the sultan and his family within the palace complex. It was also commonly said in Ottoman culture that “the empire was ruled from the harem” which indicates the political power these royal women yielded in their own right. Two of the most powerful political figures in Ottoman history were women, Hürrem Sultan (wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, mother of Selim II) and Kösem Sultan (mother of Murad IV). So clearly harems were the sacred seats of power from which these influential women lived and ruled and where caed for— they did NOT spend all of their time doting on the sultan’s every need. These were NOT royal whore houses.
The French word “odalisque” originates from the Turkish odalık. It’s Turkish root “oda” means “chamber” and refers to a chamber girl or attendant. These attendants were not only unpracticed in the sexual arts, they did not have the privilege of sexually pleasing the sultan. They were slaves at the lower end of the Ottoman hierarchy, responsible for tending to the sultan’s wives, daughters, and concubines. There was small chance that an odalık might distinguish herself and join the concubine realm, but it was not common occurrence. The shift in the term’s definition as it transitioned from Turkish to French to it’s English usage, illustrates how Europeans objectified Far East culture, belittling and exploiting these people. By the 18th century the term “odalisque “referred to the eroticized artistic genre in which a model, a European woman posing as an eastern woman, lies on her side on display for the spectator. Instead of building a cultural exchanged based on a comprehensible understanding and equality, these Europeans paintings belittled these people and their culture for entertainment.
Western artists were so taken with the idea of a sex retreat that their paintings of harem slave girls ALWAYS insinuated a woman experienced and used for sexual gratification of a royal male ruler, a male viewer. Therefore we have a prevailing assumption that odalisques were exotic objects of inspiration for artists of the Orientalist school. These artists began to combine European standards of beauty with the inappropriate European concept of a harem woman, so we have an exhaustive number of paintings bearing the title of Odalisque from the 1800s to as late as the 1920s. Some notable artists were Henri Matisse, Eugène Delacroix, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Lord Frederic Leighton, Richard Parkes Bonington, American Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Italian Ignace Spiridon and Spaniard Mariano Fortuny. Common themes in many of the paintings were turbans, striped harem pants, embroidered or beaded slippers, fur pelts, tasselled pillows and expressions or poses of willingness. In these paintings, the woman was put on display purely for the viewing pleasure of the male gaze. Unlike Sargent’s Madam X who commanded her sexuality, these serpentine odalisques were submissive and compliant, offering themselves shamelessly for the pleasure of male viewing.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the most famous odalisque painting pretty much ever. French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 1814 The Grand Odalisque was a royal commission. Ingres produced with his usual stunning clarity an elongated and reclining nude with her long back turned toward the viewer. Wearing a turban she glances passively and expressionless over her shoulder as she lies on a divan, surrounded by rich blue fabrics which serve to contrast against her creamy flesh. Of course the model looks more like a classic French beauty than a true descendant of Middle Eastern, which makes her turban all the more ridiculous to look upon (or maybe the farce is ridicules only to me). I must confess I hate, and have always hated this painting. Matisse’s Post-Imresionists paintings of odalisque women at least had a charm about them due to his experimental approach and having his models act out roles (he always often used actual foreign women at times) but Ingres’s doe-eyed and vacant woman has always irked me. She is bland and at the same time eery and alien. Its a strange combination that is as off putting as the overly ornate divan. Her torso is a few vertebrae too long and I find it painful when I look too long at the strained curve of her back and tension in her shoulder and arm area. Oh and the anatomy in her legs is wrong too, the left knee, the one under her, should be bent upwards like that with foot resting on calve and I think that one is awkward too. I will not deny that this is a remarkable painting for its draftsmanship, structure, attention of detail, light, contrast, composition, blah blah blah, but its subject disturbs me. This woman is clearly a fantasy, a grotesque overly worked fantasy. But I will let you decide for yourself.
For comparison here are a few of Matisse’s odalisque paintings from the Post-Imressionist era. Though they are still Orientalist in theme, but I find that I admire these paintings for the way Matisse captures a moment with the women. I get the impression that these are women with personalities and responsibilities that give them a life beyond being viewed. They are still exaggerations of reality, but I believe Matisse was more concerted with his expirmental treatment of painting techniques than to exploiting a culture or women’s sexuality. Plus I love his brilliant color and pattern.