Léon François Comerre was born in France, although like his fellow Frenchmen, Eugéne Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres, he was fascinated with Near-Eastern Islamic cultures. These artists reveled in the many facets of these distant lands, often taking as subjects lounging odalisques in various attitudes of leisure and entertainment, while inextricably weaving the ordinary and imagined into great visual spectacle. Whatever the subject, the underlying myth of the Orient as exotic and lavish was always fully articulated.
In this sense, Odalsique au Narghilé is a quintessential Orientalist painting. The reclining Odalisque's legs are swathed in a diaphanous fabric, her outstretched arms delicately placed behind her head, extending her torso in a playful yet alluring manner. All about her are the objects so familiar to Comerre's Orientalist works - Moorish tilework, a smouldering hookah, rich rugs, cloth and furs, and a window opening into an Eden-like forest (fig. 2 as in the example Haifa, below). The mosaic field tiles depicted in Odalsique au Narghilé are accurate in their design and contribute an exquisite quality of shimmer (fig. 1). Paintings such as the present work invited their European viewers to enjoy the most tempting elements of the Orient, appealing to all the senses and providing a glimpse into what such an environment might truly look like.
Despite Comerre's propensity to conjure the allure of the Orient, he is best known as an academic portraitist and painter of historical and mythological genre scenes. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts. His strength in painted line and form is reaffirmed by the fact that he also was a renowned sculptor.
(fig 1) An architectural drawing for a Moorish mosaic field tile.
(fig. 2) Léon François Comerre, Haifa, Private Collection.