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"La Grande Odalisque" Speaking

When a painting's model comes to life

By Lana V LynxPublished 9 months ago Updated 2 months ago 11 min read
Top Story - June 2023
La Grande Odalisque, 1814, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

The Louvre, December 2022: I'm standing in front of the painting I wanted to see in person ever since I read about it for the first time nearly 25 years ago. "La Grande Odalisque" fascinates me endlessly and I can spend hours studying its details.

I know enough about the painting to understand the artist's motivation and vision for his masterpiece, but one question would not let me go: Did the painting's model know how he was depicting her? I try to imagine who this young woman was, how Ingres knew her and how he talked her into posing for the painting.

I feel another's presence. I turn to the left and see a woman standing next to me, wearing a delicate hat with a large feather and an airy Napoleonic high-wasted long dress showing off her beautiful neckline. Does the Louvre now employ period guides as well? Without turning her head to me, she asks, "Did you have questions about the painting?"

I suddenly realize it is the model from the painting. It is eerie to see the same profile and expression in her eye siding me. "Yes!" I exclaim, in excitement.

"Shhhh," she brings her index finger to her lips. "You are at the museum, be quiet."

"Alright," I whisper back, looking around. I am here during the extended hours on Wednesday. It's almost 8:30 pm and there's only two more people in this room, too far away from me to hear anything. "Are you really the painting's model?"

"I am indeed," she nods, without turning her head to me. I admire her classical Greek profile and straight dignified posture of a ballerina.

"How did you know the artist?" I ask, still not believing her.

"Jean is my cousin. We grew up together," she said matter-of-factly.

"Did you know that the painting would be..." I hesitate, thinking about how to ask the question delicately, "in the nude?"

"Of course," she giggles, "Cousin Jean told me from the very beginning. That was one of the reasons why he asked me: He couldn't find a model to pose in the nude, and there is no shame between cousins."

"Really? How so?"

"As I said, we grew up together. Up until I was 9 or 10, we took baths and swam in the lake together naked. He really is like a brother to me, why would I be ashamed of getting naked in front of him?"

"A-ha," I said, nodding, as if it all made perfect sense.

She was looking at the painting intensely, tilting her head to the right. "Do you think the painting is a little..." she was trying to find a good word for it, "off?"

"Off? There are so many things that are off about this painting, I don't even know where to start."

"Really? So tell me what's off in your eyes?" she probed, turning to face me. She was breathtakingly beautiful, the painting didn't do her any justice. Her face was perfectly symmetrical, with her left side being the mirror reflection of the right side depicted in the picture. How can someone be so beautiful? I thought, almost blurting it out loud.

As a seasoned teacher who does not like to provide ready-made answers for the students, to stimulate them to think critically, I say, "Well, let's look at your spine first. Do you see anything wrong with it?"

"Hmm," she hesitates, "it looks a little too long?"

"A little? By at least two vertebrae!" I see a question in her eyes and add, "Vertebrae are back bones that make up our spine. The average adult human has 24 of them. The woman in the painting has at least 26, maybe more. No one can tell exactly because Ingres smoothed them over. If you look closer at the lower back, some of them are not drawn out at all."

"I can see it now, it is almost like the woman has some back bones missing!"

"Exactly!" I confirm enthusiastically. "Because the torso looks too long and spineless, the Odalisque is often described as a snake woman."

She nods. "What else is off? Do you think her shoulders are proportionate in size to her behind?"

"No, but pear-shaped women are not rare, so that's not unusual. What is off, however, is the line where her 'behind' starts."

"Too low?"

"Or too high, it depends on how you look at the hip. Again, this maybe just because of an exaggeratedly long torso, but it definitely is off. Also, the 'behind' itself is much smaller than what the size of the hip suggests."

"I see it now too! Anything else?" she asks, still looking at the painting intensely.

"Look at her neck now. Did you model in this same pose every time?"

"Yes, I did. It was torturous, to sit like that for hours at a time, looking back at Jean. He was so meticulous about the details of the setting, all the colors and rich silky textures, and all the shadows, he wanted to get everything right!"

"Could you turn your head the same way to me? I want to show you something."

She obliged and I took a snapshot on my iphone. Her eyes widened in amazement when she saw the device. "What is this?"

"It's an iphone, but let me show you the picture."

"What kind of marvel is this?" she is still shocked by the look of the device. They train their period guides at the Louvre really well. Ok, I'll bite, after all I had the most enjoyable experience with the period guides who never broke character at the Boston Tea Party Museum and at Jamestown.

"It's a phone with a camera, I'm sorry you didn't have either at your time. This is something that allows me to do many different things, including talking to someone at a distance and taking pictures. Look at this one."

I show her the picture of her I just took and she leans back as if she saw a ghost. "How is this possible?" she covers her mouth with her right hand.

"I wish I could explain, but I only have a very general idea of how this works. Has to do with the light going through the lens and the camera capturing and projecting the image... Anyway, look at your neck, do you see the difference with the painting?"

She looks at her picture and the painting back and forth for comparison. "My real neck is umm... longer?" she says shyly, seeking my confirmation.

"Yes, much longer, and not as thick. That big fat fold is not there either. Also, look at the shoulder line on the left side. It is triangular, like in a very athletic man. Most women have a more pronounced, steeper drop from the neck to the shoulder."

"I see, that's true!" She exclaims and then quiets herself down, giggling, "Shh... We are at a museum! Do you see anything else... unusual about the painting?"

"Can you tell that the right arm is longer than the left one?"

"No! How could you? The left arm is not straightened out."

"Just look closer. I wish I had a measuring device. But then we can't touch the painting anyway. Let me try this, though." I take a picture of the Odalisque on my iphone and blow it up for her. She ooohs in amazement again. I don't want to blow her mind off by using the picture editing app’s millimeter grid, so I just tell her, "Imagine your index finger nail, beautiful manicure, by the way, is a measuring unit. How many of your fingernails would fit into her right arm?"

She squints as she moves her finger along the right arm. "I don't know, three? It's a small picture."

"I'd say three as well. How about her left arm?" I move the picture in the frame.

"Two and a half?" she is not sure, seeking for my confirmation.

"Yes! See, it's shorter!"

"Wow, Jean really didn't care about exact rendering of my body, did he? I'm glad you can see it and point it out to me!"

"I'm not the only one, dear. What's your name, by the way?"

"Marie," she rolled her French "r." Of course she is, probably the most common name at the time.

"You see, Marie, this painting sparked so many debates about the female body and anatomy. Everyone wanted to make a full inventory of all the mistakes Ingres made here. I think the last count was close to 30!"

"This cannot be! What are some others? We've covered only five or so."

"OK, find me the elbow on the right arm."

She points at the rounded shadow near the hip.

"Right. But do you see anything unusual about it?"

"There's no... bulge! The arm is completely even and straight, it should be thicker right here," she touches her right arm around the elbow, as if to check for it. "And also, much narrower at the wrist!"

"Exactly!" I want to sound encouraging in her discovery. She raises her eyes at me, as if asking, "Anything else?"

"Now look at your boob."

"My what?" she looks genuinely confused.

"Sorry, your breast."

She looks down at her low decollete, "What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing with yours, Marie, they both are absolutely perfect. I mean in the painting."

"Oh. I want to say something is off about it, but I can't tell what."

"Positioning. Does it look like it grows from the side, not from the chest? Almost like someone stuck it into your arm pit?"

"Oh my god, you are right! I can see it now! That is a really bad perspective!"

"Oh the genius of curvature and smooth lines, depends on whether you love or hate Ingres' work. I, for one, love it and find it immensely enjoyable... Just one more, to completely blow your mind?"

"Ok, it's quite blown already, but you seem to know and notice a lot, it's really interesting to talk to you. So, what is it?"

"Complete the imaginary line from your left leg behind the right arm to the body. Where do you think the leg starts?"

"Oh my god!" she exclaims as if she made an impossible discovery. "Somewhere at the belly button line?"

I nod. She says, rushed and looking around as if afraid that someone will catch us in the act of doing something wrong, "It might be partly my fault. It was so hard to sit in that pose, I kept shifting my left leg all the time. Maybe that's why it got... blurred."

"You know what the one thing Ingres got about you right is?" I say, noticing confusion on her face and wanting to encourage her. She raises her brows without saying anything. "Your face, Marie. How can someone be so beautiful?"

"Oh my, thank you." Despite the compliment, she seems to be distressed and hesitant now. "Do you think other people like the painting?"

"Of course they do! Some people spend hours looking at it."

"But do they do it because they like it or because they are counting the mistakes?"

"Who cares! It's all about male gaze anyway."

"Male what?"

"Male gaze. There's a whole theory about it in art. Before photography like this..." I point at my iphone, "or pornography existed, men could only enjoy women's bodies either in person or in commissioned art. Most art with naked women was commissioned by wealthy men who actually competed with each other for the best and most naked women's paintings in their homes. I can picture very vividly how they discussed the paintings, gossiping about women subjects and admiring them."

"Not this one, though. Jean told me it was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon's sister, Queen Caroline Murat of Naples."

"Yes, and she gifted it to her husband, the King of Naples. I bet it was hanging in his bedroom and he had many a fun time with it. It's all about the male gaze..."

"Excuse me, madam, who are you talking to?" I hear a male's voice from behind. I turn around to face a uniformed guide approaching me. And there's no one else.

"I'm sorry, no one really, just myself."

"We are closing in 10 minutes, madam. Please proceed to the exit."

I take the last snapshot of the painting and ask as I take my leave, "Where did the period guide go?"

"Who?" the man asks, perplexed. "I didn't see anyone here at all for at least half an hour..."

The picture I took while talking with the guide

On my recent Jan.2,2024 visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I spotted an unfinished repetition of the painting which only highlights the painting’s peculiarities as they are not offset by the rich colors and textures of the background, focusing on the model:

Unfinished copy by the author at The Met

PaintingHistoryFine Art

About the Creator

Lana V Lynx

Avid reader and occasional writer of satire and short fiction. For my own sanity and security, I write under a pen name. My books: Moscow Calling - 2017 and President & Psychiatrist

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insight

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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Comments (16)

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  • Rachel Deeming2 months ago

    This was super interesting and I loved the way you related it. I have revisited the painting since reading and it's fascinating. So weird, his depiction. The background though is so detailed with the creases in the material.

  • Shirley Belk2 months ago

    Love your imagination, Lana! I took art appreciation in college many years ago. But you brought a new semester to it just now! Okay, I have to ask...does anybody else see the child's face in the area just above her buttocks, which to me, looks more like an abdomen in the same place mentioned??? The blues in this painting....LOVE

  • Paul Levinson3 months ago

    Great story, Lana! I really felt like I was right there!

  • Bozhan Bozhkov4 months ago

    It is even better to get information directly by the participants in an event, even if only in our imaginations. :)

  • Alex H Mittelman 7 months ago

    Great work !

  • Rob Angeli8 months ago

    Very nice, you're very lucky to have gotten to speak to the model, missing vertebrae or no! Congrats on top story. Check out my entry, "Finding the Wings: Painted from Life" if you have a moment, for another exploration of the Regard.

  • Novel Allen9 months ago

    Beautifully done. I was sure you did some time travelling, it seemed so real. Congrats on TS.

  • Kendall Defoe 9 months ago

    Oh, I like this one! A very clever take on the challenge, and something I have often wondered about when looking at certain portraits: what would they say to us if they could speak beyond the canvas?

  • Starlight Tucker9 months ago

    I don't want to spoil the mystery in this story because who the characters are is absolutely a strong point that draws in the audience. The history is wonderfully stated. Excellent work here Lana! I can't wait to see more!

  • Jay Kantor9 months ago

    Dear Doc ~ You Give "Perfect Boob" ~ As a "Seasoned" Educator you inspire my 'BackBone' - Such a "BreathTaking" Presentation - I so like it when you bring out more of your 'Covert Teaching Techniques' - With an 'I Dare You' to focus on themselves approach - - Always with my Respect - Jay Jay Kantor, Chatsworth, California 'Senior' Vocal Author - Vocal Author Community -

  • Mackenzie Davis9 months ago

    Very cool way to present an art critique! I enjoyed reading a conversation as opposed to a lengthy essay. And the ending adds a fun degree of doubt in the ethos. You chose a beautiful painting, just stunning. I was enraptured with it too. 😊💜

  • Melissa Ingoldsby9 months ago

    I thought it happened the conversation is so fluid and real!!!! Really I am impressed 🥰😍♥️

  • Judey Kalchik 9 months ago

    Yay! Congratulations on Top Story- I was so impressed when I read it yesterday: original and informative

  • Mark Graham9 months ago

    Your work is inspirational and gives the reason why anatomy is taught to art students. By the way I do believe in ghosts for after we die where would we go but around if not ready to go to heaven for some reason.

  • Judey Kalchik 9 months ago

    Such an original way to share informa about this painting- I live learning new things!

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