Icons loom large in the mind, but sometimes they’re tiny in person.
That’s the case with “Odalisque,” the teensy painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) acquired a few days ago by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Less than six-by-10 inches in size, it has just been installed on the third floor of the Ahmanson Building.
Of course, the painting owes its iconic status to a much larger relative. The little picture is one of at least four later versions the French artist made of his great 1814 “La Grande Odalisque,” which has been in the collection of the Louvre Museum in Paris for more than a century.
That one, 5½ feet wide, is notorious. A reclining harem woman, “La Grande Odalisque” revolutionized the tradition of the female nude in European painting.
Ever since the Renaissance, the subject had been deeply embedded in themes from ancient mythology – Venus, say, or Susanna or another literary figure from Ovid or the Bible. Ingres kept the “far away” that a subject from the mists of antiquity implied, but he pushed it fast-forward into the present: His harem woman hails from the far-away Middle East, where Napoleon’s Army of the Orient had lately been off adventuring.
The Louvre’s was commissioned by Napoleon’s sister, Caroline, queen of Naples, who was forced into exile before she got it; no one knows whether the small one had an intended recipient. LACMA’s little version differs in many ways from its grander cousin.
The big fabric drape she pulls toward her creamy skin is a deep velvety green, not satin blue. The elaborate fly-whisk resting on her calf is white (horsehair?), rather than a florid array of peacock feathers. The turban is less extravagant.
Patrice Marandel, the curator of European art who snared the prize for the relatively modest sum of $761,000, noted on the museum’s blog, Unframed, that the obsessively inventive artist would often tinker with finished canvases in subsequent variations. Ingres wrote, “It has sometimes been brought to my attention, and perhaps accurately, that I have represented my compositions too often, instead of making new works. Here is my reason: most of these works, which I love because of the subject matter, seemed to me worth improving by repeating them, or touching them up...”
What’s fascinating is that, in the tiny “Odalisque” do-over, what didn’t get “touched up” – not even the littlest bit – was the very thing that had shocked the French Academy when Ingres first showed the big painting at the 1819 Salon: Anatomically, his sensuous harem figure is physically impossible.
The woman’s long, sinuous back has a few extra lumbar vertebrae. Her right breast is tucked incongruously under her armpit. One arm is truncated, as if leaning on it caused it to buckle or shrink, while the other stretches out like Silly Putty, reaching to her ankles. Her pelvis is distended.
She looks entirely unperturbed by the anomalies. But contemporary critics squealed that the woman’s bones – if she even had any – were as sturdy as cooked spaghetti. French physicians, writing almost 200 years later in Britain’s Journal of the Society of Royal Medicine, even published an analytical article to prove that “La Grande Odalisque” has five extra lumbar vertebrae, rather than just the three extras that art critics surmised.
Three or five – the number doesn’t much matter. What does is that the brilliant painting’s liveliness comes from the visual tension between cold, illusionistic, almost photographic detail and smoldering, purely imaginative heat. Ingres’ capacity for overall abstraction fits the “far away” subject like a glove.
That’s all still there in LACMA’s little version of the great Louvre painting. The tiny canvas doesn’t seem fully worked out or finished, but you can clearly see Ingres trying out possible alterations -- all while being wholly satisfied despite his critics’ complaints.