The odalisque was a common subject in paintings of the 19th century. The origin of the term is the Turkish “Odalik,” describing a virgin female slave, but in Western usage the term is later used to describe a luxurious concubine or prostitute. The traditional posture of the odalisque in painting is reclining, normally with her back to the observer, putting emphasis to a greater or lesser extent on the back and buttocks.
The most famous odalisque is Le Grande Odalisque (1814) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Similar to the classical norm, there is less emphasis placed on the largeness of the breasts, which are present, rounded, but not given attention. Instead, emphasis is placed on the buttocks, which are quite large, and made to seem even larger by the way they are partly concealed by the placement of the arms. The stomach is shown with ripples and folds. Unlike classical sculptors, however, there is not the same emphasis on profile in the odalisque, here diminished by the ¾ face view, which causes the nose to be lost somewhat in the blending to shadow.
This Odalisque (1874) was painted by Jules Joseph Lefebvre, and is one of the most famous and traditional. Note how the painting takes emphasis off the primary features of the face, such as the nose, even to the extent of concealing the chin completely. Instead, the only major facial feature that receives attention is the ear, which is highlighted by the hair heaped atop the head. The woman’s back is smooth, with no sign of the ribs, and in the lower back there are two dimples adding extra emphasis to the fat present in the woman’s buttocks and thighs.
Although the most classic forms of the odalisque emphasize the shapeliness of body, the earlier The Blonde Odalisque (1752) by François Boucher emphasizes the corporeality of the sensual body. While Ingres and Lefebvre emphasize the body’s curves against dark material and shadows, Boucher uses pale fabrics and the posture to somewhat erase the curves of the body, especially the breasts, but even the buttocks so that the thigh is the most prominent portion of the woman’s anatomy.
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