Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Harem Venuses: Le Bain Turc (1862) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

As part of our ongoing exploration of the harem we present the ultimate harem painting of the nineteenth century  (and, probably, of all time), Ingre's sensuously erotic Le Bain Turc.  Painted towards the end of his life, when he was in his late seventies and early eighties, it synthesises much of his views on the depiction of the female body and the joys of the voluptuous feminine figure.  This last great masterpiece had a long gestation (not unusal with Ingres, who would often work on a painting for years) and takes in elements of work he did fifty years previously.

Self portrait (1824)

Like many people in the nineteenth century, Ingres was fascinated by the mysterious east of which the Turkish harem was the most intriguing and attractive aspect.  Ingres was one of the first of a whole group of artists who produced what would later be known as Orientalist paintings. As Victor Hugo said: "There is more interest in the East nowadays than there has ever been. Never before have Eastern studies made such progress. In the age of Louis XIV everyone was a Hellenist, now they are all Orientalists. Never have so many fine minds, at one and the same time, delved into the abyss that is Asia. … Everywhere the East has come to preoccupy the mind and imagination. … Everything there is large, rich, and fertile".  Which is exactly what you could say about the appearance of Ingres bathers.

Study for Le Bain Turc

Ingres was born in Montauban in 1780, the eldest child of an artist, sculptor and stonemason.  Initially learning from his father, Ingres was enrolled in the Académie Royale de Peinture, Sculpture et Architecture in Toulouse at the age of 11. 

Man Ray Violon d'Ingres (1924)

Whilst there he also developed his interest in playing the violin and became second violin in the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse.  Ingres' facility with the violin led to a phrase still used in France, violon d'Ingres, meaning having a skill other than one for which you are best known.  Incidentally, this was the title of a photograph by Man Ray, a great admirer of Ingres' work,  featuring French model Alice Prin in a pose recalling Ingre's picture The Valpinçon Bather, a painting with a major impact on Le Bain Turque.

The Valpinçon Bather (1808)

Ingres was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in October 1799 and having tied for second place in 1800 he won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1801. The funding for his time at the French Academy couldn't be found until later so he didn't travel to Rome until 1806.   The Valpinçon Bather was painted whilst Ingres was studying at the French Academy in Rome as part of his prize.  As part of the conditions of the prix he had to send three paintings back to Paris and La Grande Baigneuse (as it is known in France (originally it was just called "seated bather" - Valpinçon, after whom it takes its name, was a subsequent owner) was one of these.  It was his first large, successful full nude, although contemporary critics were not entirely convinced.  Its cool sensuality, strong line, muted colour and comparative lack of depth all foreshadow Le Bain Turc itself.  Certainly, it lacked the more obviously tactile elements and warm colours of the previous year's half figure of a bather which was also painted in Rome.

Half figure of a bather (1807)

Ingres returned to the Valpinçon Bather again and again. In 1826 he revisted the figure shifting her outside to a sylvan landscape adorned with other bathers disporting themselves in the background.

The Small Bather (1826)

Two years later he evolved his approach in the Small Bather for a painting commissioned by the collector Louis-Joseph-Auguste Coutan and moved his bather from the anonymous surroundings of the Valpinçon Bather into the harem.

Harem Interior (1828)

Here we see the first sisters of the volupuous figures in Le Bain Turc but it is still a small, intimate setting lacking the sense of sccale of its location that the later painting has.  This figure, seated on the floor rather than the bed, will become a central one in Le Bain Turque.

Sleeping Odalisque (1810-30?)

There is a seperate line of evolution in his painting which leads to the Le Bain Turc and that is his series of odalisqes.  An odalisque (from the Turkish odalik, meaning chambermaid) was a slave and very much at the bottom of the complex social heirarchy in the Turkish harem.  She was certainly not a concubine but could become one if she was particularly talented at music, dancing or was very beautiful.  If the sultan did, indeed, have sex with her she became, by that very act, a concubine with a much elevated status.  In nineteenth century painting the use of the word almost always contemplates a woman who is or is about to become a concubine and has a sexual connotation not necessarliy present in actual odalisques in the harem in Constantinople and elsewhere. 

Study for The Sleeper of Naples (1808)

The Sleeping Odalisque was almost certainly painted in Rome as well, although its exact date is unknown.  It is more in the nature of a study than a finished painting.  It is very likely a study for a picture called Sleeper of Naples or Sleeping Woman of Naples a painting which is now lost, in which case, originally it had no Turkish links at all.  Nevertheless Ingres, again, re-used the pose in a painting which certainly did fit the orientalist theme.   It could possibly be a copy done later as Ingres often produced smaller versions of his pictures for friends or collectors.  Whatever, it must have been a potently intimate work for any collector, let alone a lady (it was commisioned by Napoleon's sister Caroline Murat although whether Caroline was a lady we suspect even Napoleon would dispute).  The sketch, with shows has an alternative position for the right arm (other alternatives are apparent on her hip) shows a woman sprawled in an undoubtdely erotic reverie. 

The "beautiful" Mariuccia

Ingres often didn't use models; making quick sketches from life and then revisiting and re-working them without the benefit of a model.  In this case, however, he has noted next to the drawing "Mariuccia beautiful blonde/via margutta 116"  The italics are Ingres'.  Via Margutta is a small street in Rome near the Piazza del Popolo which is now very fashionable (Federico Fellini lived there) but with  a long history of being a location for artists' studios.  So, some time around 200 years ago a young girl called Mariuccia stripped off for Ingres and pulled her lush body into this splendidly effective pose.  This is why Agent Triple P often appreciates sketches more than the finished paintings.  The connection with the actual model is that much more immediate.

 Caroline Murat by Ingres (1814)

The original Sleeping Woman of Naples had been painted for Queen Caroline of Naples who commissioned a number of paintings from Ingres.  Maria Annunziata Carolina Murat was Napoleon's sister who married her brother's flamboyant cavalry commander, General Joachim Murat.  When Napoleon made Murat King of Naples in August 1808 Caroline became Queen consort.  She commissioned Ingres to paint a companion piece for Sleeping Woman and he produced his famous Grand Odalisque.  

 La Grand Odalisque (1814)

The picture was never delivered to Queen Caroline as Murat's Neapolitan Kingdom fell.  He sided with Napoleon during the 100 Days and was subsequently executed.  Ingres showed the painting in Paris in 1819 where it was immediately controversial not least because this was, of course, a painting produced very much for private consumption so Ingres had felt confident in loading it with symbols of lush eroticism; the incense burner, the chibouk pipe (tobacco when associated with women was a potent erotic symbol), the peacock feathers and the fur.  Even worse, for many critics, were the liberties Ingres took with human anatomy.  Quite simply this pose is impossible and it has been calculated that she has three or even five extra vertebrae and one arm longer than the other.  The extended pelvic region could have been a device by Ingres to emphasise this most important part of a concubine's anatomy.  Ingres didn't care about anatomy in this piece, however, he just wanted to produce the most sweepingly elegant line he could.  Agent Triple P fell in love with this picture when he first saw it in the Louvre when he was about twelve years old.  He immediately spent some of his precious holiday pocket money on a very high quality print of it in the shop, which he still posesses to this day.

Studies for La Grand Odalisque

You can see how Ingres designed the painting as a counterpoint to Sleeping Woman.  Their heads are at opposite sides of the painting as if it was contemplated hanging them as a pair next to each other.  Whilst Sleeping Woman is all about those soft breasts, belly and thighs leading your eye up to her groin, La Grande Odalisque is all about that long bare back and delicious slice of posterior.  Her expression and position lead you to think that you have just come across her unexpectedly; blundering through the harem looking for something else.  She challenges the viewer, not caring thet they are gazing on her naked body.  It is a different sort of voyeurism from Sleeping Woman where the girl is unaware of her observer.  This girl knows you are there and doesn't care.

La Grand Odalisque: lithograph by the painter (1825)

Ingres may have realised he was pushing the level of acceptability because he covered up the divide between her buttocks with a fold of sheet.  Interestingly, however, when he produced a lithograph of the painting for sale to collectors he left this off, revealing the neat curve of her bottom.

Odalisque with a Slave (1839)

Ingres' final Odalisque was equally controversial.  Commissioned by Charles Marcotte d'Argenteuil Ingres even went so far as to warn him to prepare his wife mentally for "the touches of eroticism in our picture".  The figure is based on that of our Roman beauty, Mariuccia, again and folows the both arms behind the head pose of the sketch, rather than the slightly different pose of the colour study. 

Double study for Odalisque with Slave

His odalisque reclines with a thin swathe of fabric barely covering her legs and groin.  Again, the indolence of the girl is emphasised by the presence of the nargileh pipe.  The slave, one breast exposed, plays on a musical instrument whilst the odalisque gazes at her in what could well be desire.  In the background a black eunuch hovers, demonstrating that the women have no privacy.

Odalisque with slave (1842)

Ingres revisted the work three years later, working with two of his students Paul and Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin.  In this new version a garden was added in the background which gives a completely different feeling to the painting; removing the heated claustrophobia of the original.

Sketch for Odalisque and Slave

Originally, Ingres had contemplated a different approach to the picture and an early preliminary sketch shows that he was originally thinking of the woman being a wife of the sultan rather than a mere slave.  "The rest of the sultana", "a sultana at rest" and "the sultana and her women" are all alternative titles noted on the paper.  Why he demoted his principal subject isn't clear although it may have been because the word "odalisque" carried more erotic charge than "sultana".  In addition, she would have been surrounded by several other women.  Reducing them to just the two women certainly increased the implied lesbian overtones, which he was to make much more explicit in Le Bain Turc.

Studies for Odalisque and Slave

Another preliminary sketch for the painting reveals that he was looking at alternatives to the "Mariuccia" pose first seen in Sleeping Woman of Naples.  Incidentally, these figures are fuller and much more voluptuous than his usual nudes; something that would reach its apotheosis in Le Bain Turc.

A fascinating Daguerréotype taken by pioneer photgrapher Désiré François Millet in around 1852 shows another lost painting of Ingres'; this time of his first wife who had died several years before.  It is an intimate, personal nude portrait; certainly something not for public display.  Perhaps he was inspired by her ripe figure to produce a curvier style of woman in Le Bain Turque.

 Lady Mary Wortley Montague

The final influence on the painting was literary not visual.  Lady Mary Wortley Montague (1689-1762) was the wife of the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and lived in Constantinople between 1716 and 1718.  Whilst she was there she wrote the Turkish Embassy Letters a series of lively observations of life in the Ottoman court.   Whilst in Turkey Lady Mary wrote a description of a Turkish harem she visited which was devoured by those in Europe and had an enormous effect on interest in the Islamic orient.  Ingres actually copied the pieces down into his notebook in around 1817.

"The first sofas were covered in cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies; and on the second, their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed.  Yet there was not the least wanton smile or gesture amongst them." 

The latter sentence seems to have been wilfully forgotten by Ingres!

However, she goes on to say that:

"There were many amongst them as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess...to see so many fine women naked, in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbert, and many negligently lying on their cushions while their slaves (generally pretty girls of seventeen or eighteen) were employed in braiding their hair..."

Studies for Le Bain Turque

It's no wonder that artists' imaginations started to run wild.  Other writers were not so convinced of the chaste nature of the harem.  Writing much earlier, in 1545, Luigi Bassano da Zara wrote: "It is common knowledge that as a result of this familiarity in washing and massaging women fall very much in love with each other.  And one often sees a woman in love with another one just like a man and a woman.  And I have known Greek and Turkish women, on seeing a lovely young girl, seek occasion to bathe with her just to see her naked and handle her."

Study for Le Bain Turc

Women in the harem spent a considerable amount of time in the Roman style baths.  There their slaves would wash their bodies and hair, rub their skin with cloves and ginger and have all body hair removed.  They would drink coffee and eat sweetmeats, gossip and plot.  Given how few concubines actually got an opportunity to service the sultan and constantly aware of their own and their companions' bodies (they would inspect each other intimately for stray hair growth) it isn't surprising that harem women embarked on passionate affairs with each other. Western writers blamed this appalling behaviour on the pernicious habit of too much bathing.

Study for Le Bain Turque.  The famous "three armed woman" this study is based on an earlier sketch of his first wife, Madeleine Chapelle.  This study shows how Ingres ended up with the positioning of the right shoulder looking so odd in the final painting - the arm had been drawn down originally

Ingres gets all of this indolent sensuality into his painting.  Originally sketched for Prince Anatoly Demidov in about 1852 it was turned down by him and was then offered to Prince Napoleon who sent it back to Ingres because his wife disapproved of it because of the excessiveness of the nudity. Ingres made some revisons to it as a result.

Le Bain Turque: original rectangular format

Although the painting is dated 1862 it was started much earler than that and indeed Ingres did more work on it in 1863.  The most radical change to its original form was to convert it to a circular tondo from its original rectangular shape.  The main reason for this was to remove as much as possible of the girl at the bottom right of the painting.  Even in the finished version she has her hand over her face in a perfectly recognisable orgasmic reverie. 

Study for Le Bain Turc

A contemporary photograph of the painting in its original format shows some of the changes that Ingres made, including the position of the girl in the right's arm and the figure in the bottom right corner.  The girl in the bath and some of the decorative elements have not yet been added either.  Unlike his great rival, Delacroix, Ingres never actually travelled to the orient to study the local interiors and architecture.  He devised his decorative elements by studying Turkish paintings.

The painting as re-framed as a tondo

Eventually Ingres sold the picture in 1865 to Khalil Bey, an Egyptian-born Ottoman diplomat and collector who had also commissioned two of Gustave Courbet's most erotic works Les Dormeuses and L'origin du monde.  Bey sold his collection in 1868 but Le Bain Turque remained in private hands and was not publicly exhibited until well after Ingres death in 1867 at the age of 86.

Study for Le Bain Turc

Degas wanted it exhibited at the 1900 Paris exposition universelle but it was only eventually displayed to the public in 1905 where it was not universally well received; the old anatomical distortion issues surfacing once more.  By this time there was little or no comment about it's lasciviousness.  Wealthy patrons twice tried to offer it to the Louvre who turned it down on both occasions.  It was only when a museum in Munich offered to buy it in 1911 that the Louvre gave in and it has been there ever since. 

Pablo Picasso - Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

The cut-down round format, again, suggests a voyeuristic viewpoint, as if looking through a hole in the wall at the illicit sights inside.  Many of the studies for Le Bain Turc focus on the plump voluptuousness of the women's thighs, bellies and bottoms.   The women's sumptuous flesh fills the frame and their arms, legs and bodies intertwine.   One critic, the poet Paul Claudel, however, called the painting "a cake full of maggots"!
Agent Triple P has to disagree and hails it as Ingres' late masterpiece and a very influential painting especially, perhaps surprisingly, with its flat depth, distorted anataomy and big blocks of colour, on cubism.  In fact one person who did appreciate Le Bain Turc when he first saw it in Paris in 1905 was Pablo Picasso and its influence can be seen on his Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon painted two years later.

More Harem girls soon...

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