Matisse and the odalisque: odes to beauty or sexy pin-ups from another era?

In the current MIA exhibition Matisse: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art, running through May 18, there are quite a few examples of “odalisques,” semi-nude images of women reclining in exotic, vaguely North African garb. It was a popular genre in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, particularly among French painters. But what are they, exactly? Studies of beauty? Soft porn dressed up as art?

Matisse's "Standing Odalisque with a Plate of Fruit," from 1924, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Matisse’s “Standing Odalisque with a Plate of Fruit,” from 1924, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

“I paint odalisques in order to paint the nude,” Matisse said. “Otherwise, how is the nude to be painted without being artificial? But also, I know they exist. I was in Morocco. I saw them.”

No, he didn’t. Matisse was in Morocco on two occasions, in 1912 and 1913. He probably saw women in similar garb. But he certainly didn’t see odalisques, which literally refers to female slaves in the harem of the Ottoman sultan, not even concubines, really, but chambermaids who would, on rare occasions, be called up to service. Odalisques, on the canvases of European painters, were a fantasy.

Ingres's "La Grande Odalisque," from 1814, in the collection of the Louvre.

Ingres’s “La Grande Odalisque,” from 1814, in the collection of the Louvre.

Perhaps the most famous painting in this genre is La Grande Odalisque, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, from 1814. He was filleted for ignoring anatomical correctness in favor of exaggerated sensuality, an argument among an all-male elite in a patriarchal world —not to get too Ms. magazine about it—that of course ignores the subject itself: a woman compelled to serve the sultan’s needs, romanticized for the purpose of ogling.

The British artist Richard Hamilton, in 1961, wrote, “It is the Playboy ‘Playmate of the month’ pullout pin-up which provides us with the closest contemporary equivalent of the odalisque in painting.” Matisse, who died a year before the first issue of Playboy came out, would probably take issue with that analogy. If his odalisques were no more realistic than a Photoshopped Playboy model, they were exaggerated not for the sake of prurience but design; they were as decorative as the florid backdrops. He painted these women—European models dressed in exotic fabrics—with a softness and ardor that many people, women included, find flattering. Matisse’s greatest collectors, as the MIA exhibition attests, were two enlightened women from America.

Ultimately, any contemporary interpretation is out of context. But debates about nudity in art and the definition of pornography have never been settled. The odalisques suggest that art may exist in the imagination but not in a vacuum.

Top image: Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Culottes, from 1921, in the collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou.