Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)

Above: sculpture of Ingres at Musée Ingres, Montauban.

From: Critical terrains : French and British orientalisms (1991), by Lisa Lowe:

“Par la diversite de son humeur, tour a tour mystique ou joyeuse, babillarde, taciturne, emportee, nonchalante, elle allait rappel­ant en lui mille desirs, evoquant des instincts ou des reminis­cences. Elle etait l’amoureuse de tous les romans, l’heroine de tous les drames, le vague elle de tous les volumes de vers. Il retrouvait sur ses epaules la couleur ambree de l’odalisque au bain; elle avait le corsage long de chatelaines feodales; elle ressemblait aussi a la Femme pale de Barcelone, mais elle etait par-dessus tout Ange !

[According to her changing moods, in turn meditative or gay, talkative, silent, passionate, and nonchalant, she awakened in him a thousand desires, called up instincts or memories. She was the beloved mistress of all the novels, the heroine of all the dramas, the vague “she” of all the volumes of verse. On her shoulders, he rediscovered the amber color of Ingres’s Odalisque au bain; her waist was long like the feudal chatelaines; she resem­bled the Femme Pale de Barcelone, but above all, she was a complete Angel.] Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)

In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a novel reflecting the tedium and ho­mogeneity of French provincial life, Emma’s young lover Leon imag­ines that he finds on her shoulders “the amber color of the Odalisque au bain.” The workings of masculine desire are illustrated by the young lover’s metonymic substitution of Ingres’s Turkish bather’s shoul­ders – smooth-skinned and distantly exotic – for the doctor’s wife whom he holds in an adulterous embrace. As Leon imagines the shoulders of one of Ingres’s oriental women, his conflation enunciates and reiterates an established association of the oriental with the femi­nine erotic. Throughout Flaubert’s writing, versions of this theme abound. Masculine romantic desire is often introduced by an oriental motif: an oriental ballad accompanies Frederic’s meeting with Madame Arnoux; Salammbo’s golden ankle chain piques Matho’s desire; the Egyptian courtesan Kuchuk-Hanem uses rosewater to perfume the traveler’s hands. Such associations of orientalism with romanticism are not coincidental, for the two situations of desire – the occidental fascination with the Orient and the male lover’s passion for his female beloved – are structurally similar. Both depend on a structure that locates an Other – as woman, as oriental scene – as inaccessible, dif­ferent, beyond. At this moment in Madame Bovary, the structural sim­ilarities make it possible for romanticism to figure itself in orientalist terms, and likewise for orientalism to figure itself in the romantic tradition .

Leon’s conflation of Emma and Ingres’s odalisque also reveals that some romantic and orientalist desires function fundamentally as a matter of cultural quotation, or of the repetition of cultural signs. Leon “quotes” Ingres’s orientalist painting to signify and to enhance his romantic desire; but, ironically enough, the orientalist painting is itself a “quotation” of other orientalisms. We know that Ingres never trav­elled to North Africa or the Near East. He derived the colors and textures for his bathers and Islamic interiors from the eighteenth­ century illustrations and the descriptions he found in the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and in Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes. The Orient of Leon’s reference to Ingres is a heterogeneous amalgam: Ingres’s paintings of Turkish odalisques bring together iconographies of a multiplicity of Orients – derived at times from painted scenes of Tangiers, Cairo, and Jerusalem, at other times from literary fictions of Persia.”

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