Olympia and the Grand Odalisque
Women are beautiful. From head to toe, a women has all the aspects that could captivate any man and beguile him. However, a woman is more than her physical attributes. The depth of her thoughts and the essence of her being is like a sea that can never be measured. A woman can mean many things and the power of her gaze may say a thousand words. The very beauty of a woman is what captured the interest of many artists, making them the subjects of their art. Among these artists are Edouard Manet and his work Olympia, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and his work the Grand Odalisque. Both these works are now critically acclaimed and adorn the walls of the most famous museums. One cannot help but unveil the secret and the mystery of these women and understand the reason of their gazes. Thus, this aims to determine which among the two works of art is more powerful and has achieved it’s purpose.
Olympia and the Grand Odalisque have the same theme, and that is a portrait of a naked woman in bed. Both these works were initially met with much criticism because it was a time of conservatism. The culture of the society in those times was very much traditional and consider a little showing of the flesh as vulgar or immoral. It was the Romantic era and it was a time of much struggles in society. It was a time of revolt against aristocratic and political norms and it was very much evident in different areas of the arts, most especially the visual arts. Artists during that era held strong emotions and depicted this in their art. It was the rise of heroic artists who dared to go beyond the traditional and permitted freedom from classical notions of form in art. This was what fueled both Manet and Ingres to make Olympia and the Grand Odalisque. Both of these artworks were met with much criticism and outrage from the public because they were scandalized by the images. However, the gravity of this dislike was different for both. Olympia was met with greater hate as compared to the Grand Odalisque. This may probably be because Ingres injected some of the Romantic styles that the bourgeois loved to view as compared to that of Manet. The position of the women in the paintings also contributed to their being accepted by the public. Olympia’s woman was quite more forward and showed frontal nudity which is quite more vulgar as compared to the Grand Odalisque’s back view.
The manner of painting the Grand Odalisque is characterized by the Romantic revolution and freedom of using colors and design. It is also very notable how the nude was made in smooth strokes and was quite ethereal in appearance. This is in contrast to the Impressionist technique employed by Manet in Olympia as he used broad, quick brushstrokes as well as large surfaces of color. Manet reveals himself as the direct heir of the Spaniards, more interesting, more freer, and more spontaneous (Mauclair III). Looking at both, one can see that Ingres made an effort in conforming with the aristocratic society which dictated the imagery of women being presented as goddesses and with a certain kind of class. However, the harshness of the strokes used in Olympia communicates across a certain strength and brutality that the aristocrats disliked.
The Grand Odalisque was the figure of a harem woman lying in bed. It was criticised for it’s faulty anatomy. The elongated body of the woman is considered as three vertebraes too many. It was also noted that the left arm of the Odalisque is also shorter than the right (Maigne et al. 344). Ingres is well known for his expression of the social condition of his subject through his paintings. The picture does show that the woman is some kind of concubine. A lot of experts interpret that the gorgeous body is for the pleasure of the sultan and the elongated pelvis was added to exude exraordinary beauty. The face also seems to show a jaded person that is betrayed of any feeling and the long distance between the face and the length of the back is interpreted as the difference between the woman’s inner thoughts and her physical condition. Much as a lot of interpretation is put to the table by art critics, the Grand Odalisque in the eyes of a layman does not communicate the power that it is supposed to have imparted. In comparison with Olympia, the mere facial expression of the woman speaks of many things. It is a very strong painting that is very symbolic of the revolutionary advocacy of the people at that time. The use of a mere courtesan, a common woman, is a statement that highly characterizes Manet and his ideals. It was Manet who was first placed in the Pantheon of Modernist painting, he had seen people and events for what they really were (Lipton 2). This was probably the reason why it was such a scandal when it was showcased in the Salon. It was the painting of a woman that has a questionable character and is certainly not the idea of beauty in high art. The Olympia is such a timely piece as it mirrors the change that happened in the political history of France. The revolution and the overthrow of aristocracy are events that paved the way for innovation, and the Olympia certainly embodies this.
Both the Grand Odalisque and the Olympia are revered works of art that are similar in a sense that they have the same subjects. However, to fully appreciate the contrast of these two, one has to delve deeper into the factors that attributed to the creation of this two works. The struggles and conflicts that characterize the era in which these two works were made and the manner in which they were regarded initially in society, shows how powerful art can affect society. The manner in which both these painting were done are very influential as well in the interpretation of the paintings and contributed to how they affected the public. These pieces are very good examples for comparison because they present the same subjects exposed at a time wherein there is a national strife. These two works which are very controversial were made to communicate a revolt because they were a break from the classical. The Grand Odalisque much as it is beautiful, the power and the deeper meaning that it was supposed to communicate does not leap out of the painting. On the other hand, the Olympia has fully reverbrated it’s purpose is symbolic of the truth and the harsh realities of life. The gaze of the woman in Olympia is confrontational and speaks of a spirit that cannot be contained.
Lipton, Eunice. Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Maigne, Jean-Yves, Gilles Chatellier, and Helene Norloff. “Extra vertebrae in Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 97(2004):342-344.
Mauclair, Camille. The French Impressionists – (1860-1900). New York : E.P. Dutton and Co. Turnbull and Spears, Printers, 1903.