The development of art at large and painting in particular in the first half of the 19th century was, to a significant extent, influenced by dramatic political, economic and cultural changes that took place at the epoch. In this respect, the French Revolution and Napoleon rule influences substantially the development of art. In fact, the beginning of the 19th century was a turbulent epoch when traditional cultural and social norms were totally ruined and replaced by new, revolutionary ideals, which were mainly grounded on the basic concepts of the French Revolution, such as liberty, equality and fraternity. Naturally, in such a situation, art could not remain isolated from cultural and political changes that took place in society and artists were influenced dramatically by these changes. In response, they had started to create new works which were very different from traditional works of classical art. This trend was particularly strong in the painting.Ā It proves beyond a doubt that each painting created by an artist is unique.
Nevertheless, it is often possible to find some common features and characteristics in paintings of different artists that lived and worked in one and the same epoch. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the work by Jean-Auguste Ingres “Grande Odalisque”¯ (1814), which was original but still it mirrored the common trend that was typical for that epoch, the trend to revolutionizing art and painting. In fact, in this work Jean-August Ingres attempted to revolutionize the traditional view on female beauty and the role of women in the society. In spite of certain idealization of the woman depicted in his painting, he still laid emphasis on the natural, realistic beauty of his model that makes his painting different from conservative depiction of women in classical works. Instead, it rather refers to ancient works which also emphasized natural beauty of women which was idealized by ancient artists and Ingres attempted to revive this trend in the 19th century painting.
Speaking about the painting, it is primarily necessary to dwell upon the artist that created them. In this respect, it should be said that the painting was created by French artist Jean-Auguste Ingres which naturally preserved some traditions of French art since Ingres had the similar historical heritage as other French artists working prior to him and at his epoch. However, it is worthy of mention that historical events that took place in France and in Europe within the couple of decades preceding the creation of the painting influences consistently the painting itself as well as the artist’s vision of his work and art at large. In fact, Jean-Auguste Ingres created “Grande Odalisque”¯ at the epoch that followed the French Revolution and the rule of Napoleon (Boime, 198). This was the period of great social, economic and political changes that influenced the further development of France and the entire world bringing in new democratic and egalitarian principles and ruining traditional norms and beliefs. In fact, the painting was created in the epoch of changes in France.
In this respect, it is worth mentioning the fact that the French Revolution and Napoleon rule had changed the political and social life of Europe dramatically. Old norms and traditions had been totally replaced by new trends aiming at the liberalization and wider implementation of elements of democratic principles. Even though the democratic ideals of the French Revolution were, to a significant extent, annihilated by Napoleon, who actually restored the monarchic rule in France, still he could not adopt policies and norms typical for the epoch of absolutism (Holt, 261). In such a situation, certain democratization of the French society took placed that influenced the French painting which was in the avant-garde of the early 19th century revolutionary painting.
In fact, French painting of the early 19th century, including the painting by Ingres, such as “Grande Odalisque”¯, was revolutionary painting (Boime, 211). It challenged conventional norms and traditions and raised themes which were not ignored by classical painters. At the same time, it should be said that Ingres rather tends to the classical style. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the painting was quite revolutionary or, at any rate, unusual for the traditional art of France and it was apparently influenced by the revolutionary spirit of the epoch, which the artist attempted to convey through his painting. Therefore, the artist attempted to combine elements of classical art and style with his revolutionary ideas and spirit of the French revolution, which focused on liberalization, elimination of social barriers between people and implied a totally new view on an individual as well as on such concepts as female beauty. The artist attempted to depict women realistically emphasizing naturalism of their painting. In such a way, he probably attempted to reject the old traditions of French art and, in a way, undermine the existing social and moral norms, to revolutionize social conscience. This is why the artist emphasized the feminine nature of his model.
For instance, “Grand Odalisque”¯ by Ingres depicts a woman that seems to be a typical matron, created to bear children that may be seen from the proportion and accents made by the painter in his work. In such a way, the painter focused, to a significant extent, on the physiological aspect of the model he depicted in his painting.
On the other hand, it should be said that Ingres idealized the female beauty in his painting creating a kind of perfect woman. In such a way, Ingres’ painting is executed in accordance with the canons of beauty which is apparently idealized (Stewart, 194). No wonder, in order to achieve such an effect the artist used his own style and technique. To put it more precisely, even though the artist used oil to create his painting, Ingres used smooth shading and lines, his painting seems to be harmonious and balanced. In this regard, the painting preserves some elements of classical painting.
However, the classical elements contradict to the revolutionary essence of the painting and its message. What is meant here is the fact that the artist attempted to show the woman as a real, woman emphasizing its natural beauty, which, though, is idealized. At this point, it is possible to speak about the unique ability of the artist to depict the natural beauty in such a way that it seems to be almost ideal, but it is ideal in its naturalism. The painting is striking by its emphasis on the physical aspects of the female beauty, which was traditionally overshadowed in classical works and hidden from the audience. Instead, classical artists often distracted the attention of the audience from the body and physical appearance of models, paying more attention to details surrounding the model. They used colors and shadows to depict the environment and background in details. In contrast, Ingres focuses entirely on the woman depicted in his painting (Holt, 246). To put it more precisely, he focuses all his attention on the woman, while her surrounding is secondary, while background is not clearly seen. In such a way, he apparently attempted to lay emphasis on the fact that an individual, a human being is in the center of the universe. Moreover, he intentionally stresses female beauty to show that people are worth of such attention and they had really deserved to be in the focus of attention of the audience. In fact, it is the woman depicted in the painting that does matter, but not her environment that implies that surrounding objects are unimportant while humans are of the utmost importance.
Hence, probably, the idealized female beauty of his model.
Speaking about the composition of the painting, it is possible to clearly distinguish two planes in the painting: the light foreground and dark background, though Ingres created a carefully constructed perspective. Nevertheless, the painting concentrates the viewer’s attention on the foreground, while the background is hidden in the darkness.
Furthermore, thematically, the painting may be viewed as focused on feminine beauty since Ingres admires female beauty. On the other hand, it is possible to estimate that the painter used original technique but he still tended to depict his model naturally, emphasizing her femininity. Ingres creates ideal, almost divine beauty taken from ancient. Also, it is worthy of mention that it is possible to view the paintings as a reference to other, non-European civilizations, since Ingres painting has Oriental motives, which may be seen in the surrounding of his model (Clark, 183). At this point, it is possible to speak about the influence of classical style and romanticism which tended to refer to Oriental civilization which they often idealized.
However, Ingres’ painting is different from classical works and the painter apparently attempted to change the conservative, classical view on women. This refers not only to physical appearance, but also to the role of women in society. His model is not a classical depiction of a woman. Instead, the painter stresses her femininity that proves the importance of women not as an ideal object of admiration, but as a real person, who is a wife, mother and who performs important social function. In such a context, the focus on the woman in the painting becomes particularly meaningful since, in such a way, the painter emphasizes the role of women in the society (Rosenblum, 203). Consequently, it is possible to presuppose that Ingres lays emphasis on the woman as equal member of society, though he clearly distinguishes her role as a wife and mother but not a revolutionary fighter, for instance. What is meant here is the fact that the painter attributes woman’s social role to traditional female roles which were typical for the epoch, i.e. the role of a wife or mother. In such a way, he reflects values which were relevant at the epoch and which uncover social roles at the epoch as well as gender views and gender roles.
Thus, taken into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that “Grande Odalisque”¯ by Ingres perfectly reflected the views of the painter on art and reflected his epoch. In such a situation, the painting reveals the problems and ideas the artist dealt with in his epoch. At the same time, the painting reveals the uniqueness of Ingres’ perception of the world and art as well as the peculiarities of his epoch. This is why the painting is really worth of attention and still attracts viewers and art critics. In addition, it should be said that the painter pays a lot of attention to the depiction of his model which he attempts to depict realistically but which natural beauty is idealized by the painter. In such a way, he attempts to stress the female beauty as well as the role of women in the society at large because it is the woman that is in the focus of the audience’s attention, while the background is intentionally overshadowed by the model which plays the central role in the painting. Hence, this painting is a perfect example of the art influenced by revolutionary trends which overwhelmed France and Europe in the first half of the 19th century and which influenced substantially the development of art and painting in particular.