Tag Archives: France

Not Your Typical Harem Scene

In Jacqueline Marval’s Les Odalisques, five female figures occupy a stage-like space before a partially open blue green curtain. A servant offers tea to four members of a harem, who sit and lie in varying degrees of nakedness. The three figures at left look to the figure at far right, who faces them but turns her gaze toward the viewer. Another figure lies on her side, facing us as her body extends beyond the picture plane.  Although Marval used chiaroscuro to cast shadows throughout the picture, she chose to stylize the figures rather than model them fully into naturalistic representations of female nudes. The textiles are not nearly as elaborate and sumptuous as those that appear in classic Orientalist harem paintings, like Delacroix’s Women of Algiers from 1834. In Marval’s Odalisques, bright scarves and clothing are pared down planes of color, whose complementary hot and cool shades bring a chromatic balance to the painting.

Jacqueline Marval Les Odalisques 1903

Gill Perry suggests that with Odalisques, Marval hybridized the typical harem scene, insofar as “the models appear to be Western women participating in an oriental ritual.” [1] I agree that Marval is Westernizing the women by making them white-skinned, but that is pretty typical in Orientalist painting (see Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque of 1814). I also detect some room for racial indeterminacy, especially with regard to the figure lying on her side, whose pose and hair immediately make me think of the mixed-race youth in George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri of 1845. The part of Perry’s claim that really does not convince me, however, is that these are modern women. Their erect backs and smooth white bodies, which Perry acknowledges but only associates with lifelessness and coldness, make me think that Marval is combining classical archetypes of ideal female bodies with the voluptuous femininities typically associated with Orientalist harem scenes. Here are some examples of Aphrodite statues that contain the impenetrable gazes and rigid facial structures that I detect in Marval’s Odalisques.

Even though Marval used chiaroscuro to concentrate darkness on the faces of the two figures at right,  Perry emphasizes her link to the Fauvists, with whom she  exhibited at the much historicized 1905 Salon d’Automne (albeit not in the prime real estate of the cage centrale). Marval also appears to me to be participating in Primivitism, a current that was pulsing through avant-garde circles—including but not limited to the Fauvists—by the first decades of the 20th century. Artists engaging in Primitivism sought self re-invention through art that was either non-Western, ancient or both [2]. For these artists, art and ways of art-making that opposed traditional Western criteria of beauty represented the promise of fresh forms of artistic expression—the holy grail of modernism. Picasso famously approached African masks in this manner, while Henri Matisse had revelations in Morocco, August Macke praised the Easter Island statues, and so on. Marval may have been looking to the Ottoman Empire in a traditional Orientalist way, but she also engaged modernist Primitivism by filtering her subjects through an archaic lens in order to reinvent the harem scene. After all, the primitive was defined across two axes: time and space, and Marval was negotiating both of them by painting Turkish concubines with a touch of Greek goddess.

The statuesque women in this picture both arouse and challenge the male gaze. Two of the figures are making direct eye contact with the viewer, but their heavy, parabolic lids restrict access to their pupils, and the viewer cannot discern their emotions. Likewise, while a male viewer can see their naked bodies, he does not have full access because Marval’s figures are either turned away, partially clothed or extending their arms and legs in directions that obscure their breasts and genitals. While the Ingres harem scene that Perry uses as a comparison is a chaotic cornucopia of available flesh, Marval offers a much more disciplined  figure grouping in which the women actively govern access to their bodies and psychological state. The half drawn curtain, meanwhile, threatens that the women could disappear “backstage” at any moment. In a sense, Marval tricks the male gaze by inviting it into a somewhat inhospitable environment: For while her scene would have appealed to male spectators at the turn of the century who would have recognized it as heir to the titillating Orientalist paintings of Ingres and Delacroix, Marval’s women also elude the male gaze by countering it with inscrutable expressions and managing its view of their bodies.

1. See Page 207 in, Perry, Gill, ed. Gender and Art. New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1999.
2. For a comprehensive definition of Primitivism, see Leighten, Patricia, and Mark Antliff. “Primitivism.” In Critical Terms for Art History, edited by Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, 170–84. Chicago, I.L.: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

These Shoes Were Made for Posing (Pinboard #1)

Louis XIV (1638–1715), by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701)This portrait painting of Louis XIV of France was painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701.  The portrait shows Louis XIV standing in all his finery, positioned in such a way that his red heeled shoes are visible from both the front and the side.  The pose is one that we might consider very feminine by todays standards, but was intended to do two things, 1, it showed off Louis XIV’s legs, which history has led me to believe he was very proud of, and 2, show off his clean red heeled shoes.  Red heeled shoes have recently been in the news to the point that this painting was in Forbes magazine online with the following caption:

This 1701 portrait of Louis XIV shows the Sun King dressed in lavish robes — and red-heeled shoes. Red was a very important color for the monarchy: Sumptuary laws, as well as the high cost of red dyes, meant that you had to be rich and powerful to wear it, and red heels were worn by the monarchy since the early 1600s. But they were especially dear to Louis XIV: He passed an edict claiming only nobility could wear them. According to historian Philip Mansel, the painted heels showed that nobles did not dirty their shoes. They also demonstrated that their wearers were “always ready to crush the enemies of the state at their feet.” Yikes. [1]

This painting, and this extra bit of information from Forbes, helps us frame one of the trends we saw as we were looking at the paintings in the French academy, namely, the inclusion of a bit of toe if not the entire shoe in the French paintings full body portrait and market scene paintings.   Knowing this painting, and the signification of the red shoes helps re-examine what is being shown in paintings such as Aubry’s “Les adieux à la nourrice”.

Another component of this painting that is relevant to the course is what is the portrait saying or showing about the sitter?  Louis XIV was well known at the time.  However, when I look at this painting in dialogue with the portraits of women and women painters we’ve seen, I do not see the same signifiers of family and home life represented.  While his family is well known, and the fleur-de-lis and his shoes serve to mark him as royalty, there are no indications of his marital status or any hints of him having children or great grandchildren.  I would almost say there is no signification pointing towards anything other than his ruling.  The painting says he exists and is, because he is, which is sort of the point of royalty.  At the very least, the painting makes it clear that he is not modest.  This portrait exists to do the exact opposite of that.  Rather than shun opulence, it is a celebration of it from the bottom of his red heeled shoes to his luxurious black wig.

1. http://www.forbes.com/pictures/mkm45fmhmg/louis-xiv-of-france-posing-in-red-heeled-shoes-2/