Ingres – Odalisque

The French revolution swept away, for a time at least, the gay frivolities of the old regime. It also brought new fashions and new ideals in art. In particular, it brought a desire to be like the ancient Romans, in military power, in austerity of manners, in dress and in furniture. Ingres and David (Mme. Recamier, No. 199) are the painters of this neo-classical revival. Their art is unlike that of ancient Rome at its best; for its coloring is hard, superficial and monotonous. Its distinctive traits of form, as contrasted with, eighteenth century court painting, are comparative plainness of surface, and long, sweeping lines, These imply the omission of elaborate ornament and of all the flowery little broken swirls and curlicues dear to Boucher and Fragonard.

This painting by Ingres is, in subject, no more austere than a Boucher; but its treatment is austere. Its coloring and texture are cold, metallic. There is no Venetian warmth to the flesh, and it rests against draperies of steely blue, pale gold and white, stiffly folded and devoid of mellowing tints. The body is like marble, with a slight coating of pink; but it lacks even the sensuous charm of late Greek sculpture, which is sensitively modelled with slight undulations of surface, producing soft shadows. Here the modelling is plain and hard, with no delicate gradations between light and dark. The face is a regular, impersonal, expressionless mask, and the body is also too smoothly regular in its lines to be realistic or individual.

Lacking all these modes of appeal, which are possessed by other pictures of similar subject, it is forced to rely largely on the intrinsic beauty of its lines as lines. Considered in themselves, they do make a pattern of unusual grace. To follow in imagination the artist’s hand as he drew these long, sinuous, intertwining curves is to feel one’s hand going through the gestures of a stately dance. It is to feel a distinctive linear music, of a kind less intricate than the Gothic, less vivacious and fanciful than Botticelli’s, less rugged than Dürer’s, a little cold and formal, like the rest of the picture — a suavely dignified melody that is peculiar to Ingres.