High Art and Low Eroticism

Recently I had to write about a painting for a class I’m taking. The actual assignment was to classify the work into a style or link elements of the painting to one of two art styles, Neoclassic or Romantic. The painting was Large Odalisque which is an an oil painting created by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres in 1814. The work lives at the Louvre and an image of it can be found online (http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/une-odalisque) at the Louvre’s website.

The painting is of a nude woman reclining on silky sheets with her shapely but large posterior angled towards the viewer. She is a female slave or harem concubine. My main complaint, aside from her completely freaky body proportions, is that this painting was supposedly considered erotic. Now I understand 1814 was before nudie magazine and porn videos and her very nakedness could be considered titillating, however, I can’t imagine it being very exciting to many people for very long due to the complete lack of sexiness or sultriness emanating from the woman. This lack of eroticism probably stems from her basic lack of desire or interest as evidenced by her bland facial expression which nullifies any possible excitement over her nudity in my opinion. She could be thinking of the 19th century equivalent of the grocery list or how young Jean-Luc-Henri needs a new governess for all I know. She is not thinking about sex or having sex.

The painting reminds me of the book Fifty Shades of Grey, the supposedly erotic novel, by E.L. James. Most of the people I talked to who read the book considered it tame, sexually, and finished reading it to know what happened with the main character. The book, like the painting, has all the parts that are SUPPOSED to make a work racy and exciting yet … eh. So did the creators of the works just fail to convey what they thought they were conveying? Or did they mean something else entirely and we all just assumed the wrong thing? In the case of the painting, did Ingres mean to have that completely impassive expression on her to convey her acceptance (or submission) to the whims of the viewer? Or did he fail to realize that nudity, silk, and a peacock fan doesn’t always equal eroticism?