This essay is comparing paintings of reclining female nudes thru the history of art. –
Ingres’ “La Grande Odalisque” and Manet’s “Olympia” a Comparison
The reclining female nude has been a recurring image in the history of European art. Each artist through time approaches the subject in a different, individualized way. An earlier example of the reclining nude is Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus,” created around 1510(see fig. 1). His nude is painted using the clair obscur method with soft, blurred lines, making her fair skin fade slowly into the dark background. Her eyes are closed, giving an aura of innocence, because she is unaware of being observed. Also, Giorgione seems to be experimenting with background in the painting. When examining the painting as a whole, one does not simply see the reclining figure, but the diverse and unusual background also attracts the eye. The fact that the background is open is a certain indication of classical influence on this Renaissance artist.
Later, in 1796, Goya began his version of the reclining nude, “The Nude Maja”(see fig. 2). This painting was ahead of its time, in the respect that the Spanish society was not ready to view this “obscene” image. She was considered obscene because of her provocative position of frontal nudity, and because this is the first time a nude has been painted in awareness of the painter; her gaze is focused outward.
About thirty years later, in 1814, Ingres paints “La Grande Odalisque”(see fig. 3). She, like Goya’s “Maja” was rejected at first by society, but for different reasons. She was not rejected because she was “obscene,” but because her body was an unnatural shape; her long back does not seem proportional to her small head. One critic of Ingres said, “She has three vertebrae too many!”
Ingres’ nude is also looking out from the painting with awareness, as Goya’s “Maja” did. However, there was not as much objection to the lack of innocence demonstrated here. Her awareness may have been less of an impact on Ingres’ society because the body of “La Grande Odalisque” is painted more modestly; it is facing in, away from the viewer. It was also more accepted in Ingres’ society because it was painted after the shock of Goya’s work. The advancement of time has given Europe a chance to broaden its perspectives, and become more open-minded regarding the strict rules of painting nudes.
If Ingres’ style in “La Grande Odalisque” is examined, one can definitely see classical influence playing a large part. The classical influence is most clear through the solid delineation of the figure. There are no blurred or choppy lines. Classical influence is also shown through the way Ingres paints his nude with very smooth, invisible brush strokes. The skin and textures of fabric seem so real, they are practically photographic. She is painted indoors, but the black background behind the blue curtain denotes openness, as seen in classical works.
Even though these obvious classical influences exist, Ingres did not follow the classical masters exactly as other Neo-Classical artists did. The figures’ slight deformation does not coincide with the classical challenge to create the perfect body. Why did Ingres reject the classical style when he shaped the body of his nude? Some critics felt that because of her unusual shape, Ingres must have been following the Mannerists, who with their unnatural ways of painting rejected the normal classic figure. However, it is also believed that Ingres elongated the back and outstretched arm to create a more sensual and erotic shape. His painting may also be considered romantic in subject matter, even though his style is Neo-Classical.
Almost fifty years after Ingres painted “La Grande Odalisque,” Manet created “Olympia”(see fig. 4). Olympia could be considered the most unconventional nude up to this point. She was painted in 1863, and again, society rejected the reclining figure. Olympia was the first of the nudes to give the viewer the sense of a real person, rather than an idealized figure. This realistic, unconventional portrayal caught the world by surpass. Olympia’s pale skin is totally unattractive when compared with the smooth, well-shadowed skin of “La Grande Odalisque.” Manet’s figure seems two-dimensional, whereas Ingres’ nude is three-dimensional. This is attributed to the fact that Manet, being reluctant to follow the trends before him, “refused to create three-dimensionality through modeling forms with lines or gradations of color.” “Olympia” is proof of this refusal; her body almost seems like a cardboard cut-out.
Another notable difference between “Olympia” and the other nudes is her gaze. She looks out at the viewer, just like “La Grande Odalisque” and “The Nude Maja,” but where these nudes had very seductive, enjoyable gazes, Olympia’s stare is very honest and frank. She looks out at the viewer with little interest, and she has no modesty whatsoever. This small change in gaze may seem insignificant, but upon examining the various nudes, one can see that it makes a dramatic difference. Manet’s nude, with her uncaring look, has a modernized feeling to it; it clearly demonstrates how Manet got the title, “The Father of Modern Art.”
Throughout the time span of the four paintings mentioned here, it is obvious that the 19th century was indeed the one most revolutionary for new thought and innovation. Ingres’ work at the beginning of that century has not quite reached that point of change, but Manet’s work in the middle of the century reflects a totally new era of change. His art helped the Victorian society to realize that the roller coaster ride into the twentieth century was to be one of exciting, liberal thought. Even today, the reclining nude is being recreated in a very fascinating way(see fig. 5). By a simple comparison of these four works, it is easy to trace the history of art from its classical stage, to the modern art it is today.