The Property from a Distinguished Private Collection
THE SEDUCTION OF THE SERAGLIO:
The Odalisques of Matisse and Picasso
By John Steinert
There was a very popular type of adventure opera in Vienna during the 18th century, which took as its plot the rescue of a fair European maiden who had been captured by pirates and sold as a slave into the harem of an Ottoman potentate. The hero's mission was to undertake a reverse kidnapping of the poor Christian girl. He needed to concoct a ruse to enter the seraglio, the enclosed palace quarters which housed the harem. With the exception of its master and his eunuch guards, access to the seraglio was forbidden to all men, Muslim and infidel alike; to get caught would result in horrible tortures and death. These plots reflected not too distant historical memories: in 1683 the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed IV besieged Vienna. They had been miraculously turned back, but they still ruled the nearby Balkan countries. Composers enjoyed setting these stories to music--it gave them the chance to include colorful instrumental pieces scored alla turca, with crashing cymbals, drums, and high winds. By far the finest example of this genre, the most popular in its time and now the most famous, is Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). The hero's quest is an allegory for the tests to which loyalty and love would be subjected before two lovers can be united. The exotic backdrop of the seraglio heightened the sense of the mysterious, the forbidden and romantic. No other setting at that time possessed such power to capture and intrigue the imagination. This was the seduction of the seraglio.
Orientalism, the European fascination with the arts and culture of the Islamic peoples of North Africa and the Near East, had its heyday in painting during the latter part of the 19th century and in the years before the First World War, when Western colonialist expansion in these lands was at its height. In the hands of its practitioners, academicians mostly, Orientalism was essentially a conservative style that was illustrative in intent and anecdotal in content. The skillful Orientalist might employ some novel painterly and coloristic effects, but these were usually a means to an end, which was to depict, with some degree of truthfulness, the unfamiliar people, customs and landscapes he encountered and observed in his own travels or in the accounts of others. With the ascendancy of modernism, the rift widened between the avowedly progressive painters of the new avant-garde and the larger body of conservative artists who populated the academies and sought their success in official and conventional venues. After the advent of Fauvism and Cubism, and the development of non-objective art, a truly modern painter could not regard contemporary Orientalist painting without expressing his disdain for its old-fashioned style and often sentimentalized content, all of which seemed hopelessly stale and out-of-step with the time.
Numerous artists plying the Orientalist manner in ateliers across Europe continued to churn out pictures for popular consumption, as indeed there remained an appetite for Orientalist paintings well into the 20th century. There were even occasional apostates and crossover artists among the modernists. As a young man Emile Bernard had befriended and emulated Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne. He turned, however, to an old master style around the time he visited Istanbul in 1894 and painted numerous Orientalist subjects in a conservatively realist manner. He renounced all of the modernist principles which he had once taken an active and important role in promulgating, and spent the rest of his career painting irrelevant works that belied the extraordinary promise of his early career. Kees van Dongen was adept at dressing up Orientalist kitsch in the rough forms and strident colors of Fauve painting. In 1906 he painted a troupe of belly-dancers performing in Paris (inauthentically topless for leering Western eyes), and he made numerous Orientalist paintings following a trip to Morocco in 1910, and to Egypt in 1913. Van Dongen understood the tastes of his clientele, and found that his style of Orientalism sold easily and well.
Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso are, of course, artists of an altogether higher and more important order. If Orientalism had definitely and irredeemably become passé as a serious art form, what then do we make of these two paragons of modern art, both of whom were both strongly drawn to various elements of this retro style? Moreover, one cannot overlook the fact that they appropriated one of the most hackneyed subjects in all of the Orientalist repertory, the odalisque, the harem slave girl, a surprisingly exotic and out-of-our-world character to put at the center of an otherwise thoroughly modern painting. Matisse painted odalisques as the mainstay of his art for more than two decades while he was at the height of his career. Picasso claimed to have inherited the odalisque from Matisse upon the latter's death in 1954, and in one form or another, this subject dominated the work of his final years, until his death in 1973. During this time younger modern artists had very different ideas about the forms and content of art, as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism dominated the scene in New York. For this reason it seems all the more remarkable that Matisse and Picasso found something so enticing in the mystique of the odalisque that they allowed themselves to indulge in a subject that was largely sheer fantasy, and was already something of a relic from the past century. The odalisque was moreover a subject that in their day attracted artists mainly of a lesser stripe, although one could look back to the previous century and find some first-class painters of the odalisque as well.
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The term odalisque derives from the Turkish odalik, the designation for a lowly slave-girl and chambermaid (oda, "chamber"), still virgin, who might rise to the status of concubine or consort to the Sultan, and ultimately become one of his wives, if she could produce a son. She was quartered with others of her station in the Sultan's harem, consisting of his concubines, wives, their children and eunuch guards. Their residence, also known as a harem, was of course forbidden to men (haram in Persian, harLONG MARK ONim in Arabic, "forbidden," usually referring to women's quarters). The palace or enclosed court in which they lived is often known as a seraglio in the West, derived from the Italian seragglio (saray in Turkish).
Because the harem was absolutely off-limits to foreigners, few had any accurate information about what actually transpired in a seraglio, or made an effort to understand the social context for this polygamous arrangement in Arab and Ottoman society. 19th century European values held that the idea of the harem was morally corrupt and indefensible, a judgment which at the same time lent this custom its tantalizingly erotic interest. The secluded lives of harem women became a mysterious and titillating source of fantasy in the Western imagination, abetted by the reading of Antoine Galland's French translation (1707-1717) of the 14th century Syrian manuscript of tales from The Thousand and One Nights. Queen Scheherazade, fated to be killed following her wedding night, regales her king with an unfinished story each evening, and in this way prolongs her life for 1,001 nights, until he relents and pardons her. Sir Richard Burton published his unexpurgated English translation in 1885.
Elements of the popular mythology surrounding the East, so closely wrapped up with erotic fantasy, must surely have appealed to both Matisse and Picasso. Matisse was by nature the more monkish type; despite frequent and annoying rumors to the contrary, he did not sleep with his models, foregoing all such contacts for the sake of his work. Picasso, who no doubt had a more active and varied love life than Matisse, did sleep with his models. They were his wife, a mistress or a girlfriend--he disliked professional models, and needed an emotional attachment with a woman in order to paint her. Matisse perhaps needed to distance himself from a direct engagement with the nude by adopting an Orientalist guise. He claimed "I do Odalisques in order to do nudes." However, he did not view the odalisque as a convention--it was for him a real subject. Unlike Picasso, Matisse had been to the Orient, he travelled to Algeria in 1906, and stayed twice in Morocco in 1912. He traveled very far east, to Tahiti, in 1930. He asked, "But how does one do the nude without it being artificial? And then, because I know that they exist. I was in Morocco. I have seen them" (quoted in J. Flam, Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 86).
While he was in Morocco, Matisse was barely able to find an indigenous girl to pose for him fully-clothed, and he settled for a teen-aged prostitute that his hotel-keeper had found for him, but even then a nude sitting was out of the question (fig. O-A, p.__). If there were odalisques to be seen in Morocco, Matisse did not paint them then and there. He nevertheless returned with some memory of the place that grew with the years, and nurtured an indelible fantasy centered on the idea of the odalisque, rendered all the more potent because so much in this experience was forbidden and inaccessible by custom, as it was for most Europeans. A decade later, while painting in his Nice studio, he would conjure up this powerful memory time and again, and project it on his canvases, as a nude or partly clothed model decked out in Orientalist garb lounged before him, set on a stage that he contrived from gorgeous fabrics and Eastern wares. This was as far as it went--whatever sensual or erotic feelings he experienced, he sublimated into his art. Matisse told André Verdet in 1952, "I had to catch my breath, to relax and forget my worries, far from Paris. The Odalisques were the bounty of a happy nostalgia, a lovely vivid dream, and the almost ecstatic, enchanted days and nights of the Moroccan climate. I felt an irresistible need to express that ecstasy, in corresponding colored rhythms, rhythms of sunny and lavish figures and colors... In this ambience of languid relaxation, beneath the sun-drenched torpor that bathes things and people, a great tension smolders, a specifically pictorial tension that arises from the interplay and mutual relations of the various elements. I dampened those tensions so that an impression of happy calm could emerge from these paintings, a more or less amiable serenity in the balance of deliberately massed forces" (quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse: A Retrospective, New York, 1988, pp. 230 and 239-240).
As Hilary Spurling has noted (see p. ___), Nice was the center of a flourishing film industry during the 1920s, and the city's Mediterranean architecture and decor made do as sets for movies based on stories set in the Near East. Some of Matisse's models served as extras on these movie sets. The sense of Orientalist fantasy that Matisse treasured in his collection of textiles and costumes (fig. O-AA, p. __), many of which he acquired in the markets of Nice, and the sensuality that he infused within his pictures, were in good part a reflection of the city in which he lived. Nice was for Matisse the port and portal, his perpetual opening unto the Orient, and this was no doubt largely responsible for the pleasure he derived from living there.
Matisse was a complex man, and while his inner life of fantasy was likely less subject to the extremes that Picasso's personality embraced, it was probably in its way no less rich, only more guarded and discrete. Picasso's sense of fantasy, and indeed his expression of eroticism, were far more overt, and proclaimed themselves quite brazenly whenever the artist turned to image-making. His fantasies about the odalisque fill his late sketchbooks, especially in early 1968 (fig. P-H, p. ___). Odalisques appear in the etchings of the 347 series as well; one of the latter depicts a scene out of The Thousand and One Nights (Baer, vol. 6, no. 1513). The girls are usually nude and always voluptuous, and Picasso often transforms them into Renaissance and Baroque courtesans, artist's models and bordello whores. These licentious ladies are a far cry from the odalisques that Picasso claimed to have received as his legacy from Matisse.
Here again popular culture, in the form of film and later television, played an important role in keeping alive the mystique of the odalisque. John Richardson has observed, "Even television played a role in the development of Picasso's late style. To distract herself during the long hours when her husband was working, Jacqueline had bought a television set. The two of them developed a taste for old movies. One film in particular, The Lives of the Bengal Lancers, triggered a series of drawings--a sultan surrounded by big-bosomed odalisques (1968)--inspired not so much by the lancers as some Orientalist concept of their foe" (in Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 29). Richardson also cited Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960)--Picasso remarked, "I don't what's happening to me lately. I do nothing but lancers, musketeers, warriors and bullfighters" (ibid.). To this list of motion pictures one may probably add other sword-and-sandal and Biblical epics, and some of the adventure films based on or derived from characters in The Thousand and One Nights: The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Sinbad (1935), Arabian Nights (1942), and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944). These movies carried the conventions of Orientalist fantasy into the age of the silver screen, and further diminished the role of the painter in supplying these subjects for popular consumption.
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Some of these insights into the reasons for Matisse's and Picasso's interest in the Orientalist odalisque have been drawn by inference and are admittedly speculative. A more reliable guide to their motivation may be found in the influences absorbed from other artists that Matisse and Picasso have openly acknowledged or are clearly found in their work. In stature and by measure of their impact on others, the greatest of the painters who worked with Orientalist subjects are Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Both Matisse and Picasso shared a profound interest in the work of each of these painters, and these influences, held in common, are a major element in story of the friendship and rivalry between these two great modern artists.
The 1905 Salon d'Automne is famous for the first showing of Fauve paintings by Matisse and his friends. Matisse, Picasso and other artists would also remember it for an eye-opening retrospective exhibition of the works of Ingres. This artist was a classicist through and through, a painter with a strong and unerring eye for detail, yet there were odd and seemingly willful distortions in his figures that seemed to anticipate and justify modern experimentation with form. Ingres created the model for all subsequent depictions of the reclining harem girl in his Grande Odalisque, painted in 1814 (fig. O-B, p. ____). Like Matisse, Ingres used the subject of the odalisque as a pretext to paint the nude. Unlike Matisse--and like Picasso--Ingres had never been to the East. He orientalized his model with the addition of a multi-colored wrapped headdress, a peacock feather fan, a Turkish waterpipe and incense burner. The painting's most salient characteristic is the artificial elongation of the figure's lower body, flanks and limbs, effects which have beguiled viewers and intrigued painters of the nude ever since. Matisse's Grand nu couché (Nu rose) (fig. M-C, p. __) is a direct descendent of Ingres' odalisque. Picasso was probably alluding to Ingres' painting, even while employing a very different pose, in his Femme au bonnet turc, 1955 (fig. P-I, p.___).
The painting by Ingres that made an even greater impression is Le Bain turc, 1862 (fig. O-C, p. ___). Here is the grand fantasy of the seraglio in all of its luscious detail, a peep-hole view, as it were, into a steamy chamber where a score of voluptuous nude beauties have arrayed themselves in the most inviting poses, eating, drinking tea, dancing, playing music, and even caressing each other in a more than kindly, sisterly way. This hothouse atmosphere aside, Le Bain turc is a tour-de-force in the rendering of multiple nude figures, each distinctively posed and arranged within an ensemble that is perfectly dovetailed and harmonized, while the distance between the groups of women in the fore- and backgrounds has been slightly telescoped in another of Ingres' subtly calculated distortions. In the year after he viewed the Ingres exhibition, Picasso painted Le Harem (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 321; fig. O-D, p.____), and he returned to Le Bain turc countless times thereafter, especially in his late works (fig. P-H, p. ___). Matisse noted Ingres' statement that "Drawing is the probity of art" (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., 1995, p. 126), which could have applied to his approach to drawing as well (fig. M-B, p. ___). Picasso would have concurred, as evidenced in his Ingresque neoclassicist drawings done at the end of and following the First World War. Many years later, summing up all that modern figure painters owed to Ingres, Picasso declared, "One must paint like Ingres; we must be like Ingres" (quoted in J. Richardson, exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 36).
The art of Eugène Delacroix is held up as the Romantic side on the coin of French painting in the first half of the 19th century, while Ingres occupies the classical side on the reverse. They were complementary indeed, and together served as the driving and defining stylistic agents in the art of their time. One might think of Ingres/Delacroix as the Matisse/Picasso of their era, without trying to precisely align those characteristics of their work they may have held in parallel. Apart from his gift of liberating local color from localized treatment to something more subjectively fluid and atmospheric, Delacroix is important in the present context for having created the odalisque as a figure not invented, but actually seen, in his two versions of Les Femmes d'Alger (1834; fig. P-A, p.___ , and 1849; fig. P-B, p.___). Delacroix traveled to Morocco in 1832 while attached to a political mission and spent six months there, drawing and making watercolors, which served as a storehouse of ideas to which he returned for years to come. During a brief layover in Algiers on his way home to France, he was given the extraordinary opportunity to visit the women's quarters in a residence belonging to an Algerian engineer, who had three wives. The resulting painting was Delacroix's first major work to come out of his Moroccan trip. Lee Johnson has written, "It enabled him to find a synthesis between the classical tradition, in which he had been educated and trained as a painter, and exotic orientalism, to which he was drawn by temperament" (in Delacroix in Morocco, exh. cat., Institute de Monde Arabe, Paris, 1994, p. 116).
In this respect, and in regard to an acquiring an authentic experience of the subjects he painted, Delacroix set the example for painters of all persuasions who later traveled to North Africa. Matisse noted in a statement made to Tériade in 1951, referring to his own trips to Morocco in 1912, "The voyages to Morocco helped me to make contact with nature again better than did the application of a lively but somewhat limiting theory, Fauvism. I found the landscapes of Morocco just as they had been described in the paintings of Delacroix"(quoted in J. Flam, ed., op. cit., 1995, pp. 201-202).
Picasso spent more than a decade thinking about Delacroix's Les Femmes d'Alger before he set down to paint his own landmark series of fifteen variations on it in late 1954 and early 1955 (fig. P-C, p. ___). The painting by Picasso offered in this catalogue, Femme accroupie au costume turc, was also painted in 1955. Picasso's model was his new companion Jacqueline Roque (whom he married in 1961), whom he cast as the central femme d'Alger in Delacroix's two versions of this subject. When standing before Delacroix's painting in the Louvre, Picasso simply remarked to Françoise Gilot, "That bastard. He's really good" (quoted F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York 1964, p. 203).
Renoir, the third link in this chain of Orientalist influence on modern painting, traveled twice to Algeria, in 1881 and 1882. He was the only painter among the Impressionists to a make Orientalist subjects a significant part of his oeuvre. He had already done a studio series of Orientalist paintings during the early 1870s, including a reclining girl in a sumptuous North African costume, Une Femme d'Alger (Odalisque), 1870 (Daulte, no. 48; The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and Parisiennes habillées en algériennes (Le Harem),1875 (Daulte, no. 84; fig. O-E, p. __), a rather risqué takeoff on Delacroix's Les Femmes d'Alger. While in Algeria, Renoir painted landscapes and seventeen figure paintings, most of which he did during his second stay. Because Islamic law forbid the picturing of people or animals in art, and custom required women to appear veiled in public or in the presence of strangers, it proved no easier to find local women to pose for him than it had been for Delacroix nearly a half-century earlier, and than it would be for Matisse three decades later. His sitters were mostly Algerian-born French, visitors from France, or Jewish women. He painted Algérienne assise in 1881 (Daulte, no. 367; fig. O-F, p. __); her identity is unknown and it is unclear whether this portrait was done during the artist's first trip or back in Paris before he returned to Algiers the following year.
Matisse met Renoir on the last day of 1917, his own forty-eighth birthday, during his first winter stay in Nice. He visited the old and ailing painter several more times in 1918. Renoir had been suffering from crippling arthritis for years, yet he continued to paint daily, resting only on Sundays. Matisse was deeply moved by the old man's fortitude and his unshakable dedication to his art. He would have viewed Renoir's most recent paintings, including some odalisques (fig. O-G, p. __). Jack Flam has written: "He must have been impressed by Renoir's unabashed enthusiasm for female beauty as by his lively courage and curiosity... Matisse was not yet known as a painter of sensual nudes; he had not been a painter of nudes at all, and most of those he had done were not notably erotic. His libidinous impulses had been largely sublimated in his painting, embedded in the pictorial language rather than overtly expressed in the subject. Renoir gave him the impetus to make new contact with his own sensuality. After twenty years of bourgeois family life... Matisse in his late forties seems to have wanted to learn how to be young again" (in Matisse: The Man and His Art, Ithaca, NY, 1986, p. 473). Matisse returned the favor to Renoir by finding his friend a new model, seventeen-year-old Andrée Heuchling, known as Dedée. Her lively presence inspired a renewed vigor in Renoir, and enhanced the glorious Indian summer of his final years. Matisse had already embarked on his own odalisque paintings when Renoir died in 1919. Just as Picasso claimed to have inherited the odalisque from Matisse, so Matisse could have similarly stated that he received the odalisque as a parting gift from Renoir.
Picasso became interested in Renoir's late paintings not long after Matisse had befriended the old painter. In 1919 Picasso began to show at Paul Rosenberg's gallery on La rue Boëtie, just down the street from his own new residence. Rosenberg did much of his business, making many of his most expensive sales, in Impressionist paintings. He had a large inventory of Renoir's pictures, including the artist's late work. Picasso delved through them, and discovered that Renoir had been engaged with issues in which he was currently interested as well. He noticed that Renoir had turned to the nude as a way of moving away from the transient effects of Impressionism, and fostering a dialogue with tradition in his work, a pursuit which enabled him to connect with Ingres, Delacroix and earlier masters. Picasso purchased one of Renoir's bathers, Eurydice, 1895-1900 (Musée Picasso, Paris). Michael C. FitzGerald has written, "The fleshy women lounging in the hot sun for which Renoir became famous in the last decades of his life were not merely escapist fantasies of sensual abandon. The classical poses of these monumental nudes evoke ancient origins, while their coiffed hair and tanned bodies place them in the modern Mediterranean At Paul Rosenberg's gallery, Picasso could not have escaped these elephantine creations of Renoir's later years if he tried... There is little doubt that Picasso's Neoclassicism of the early 1920s is substantially based on Renoir's re-creation of an Arcadian past" (in Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Art Market for Twentieth Century Art, New York, 1995, p. 106). Picasso ended up owning seven paintings and drawings by Renoir--the only other artist represented more numerously in his collection was Matisse.
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It becomes clear that the choice that both Matisse and Picasso made to feature the odalisque in their paintings stemmed partly from this subject's traditional appeal for older, white male painters, in that it offered itself as a rejuvenating, sensual experience, felt all the more intensely because this subject was tinged by a century or more of convention which brought to this subject enticingly foreign, exotic, and erotic connotations. As importantly, odalisque was a subject that stood for an entire tradition that connected several of the finest painters of the previous century, and represented a powerful, unbroken chain of continuity within that tradition. To paint the odalisque was a direct means of engaging these masters, to measure the scope, vision and accomplishment of one's own art against theirs. These were issues and choices that carried their own imperative, irrespective of time and place, and it was appropriate that the subject which facilitated this task also exist outside the context of modern reality. The odalisque satisfied all of these needs. In painting the odalisque, Matisse and Picasso carried her forward and made her modern, making her one more useful vantage point from which one could regard the past, present and future of painting in the 20th century.
Her days of service, however, were virtually done. As Picasso painted the odalisques in his Femmes d'Alger variations he was, in effect, writing their epitaph and raising their monument. The world in which she had once flourished would soon change forever. On 1 November 1954, two days before Matisse died, the Algerian Front du Libération Nationale (FLN) issued its proclamation calling for the establishment of an independent and sovereign state of Algeria. They simultaneously unleashed the Toussaint Rouge, their campaign of terrorist attacks against French official interests in Algeria. By the time Picasso painted his Jacqueline au costume turc series in November 1955, many thousands of civilians had been killed, and the fighting only promised to become worse. Algeria finally gained its freedom from France in 1962. The French colonial experience in North Africa, which had lasted more than a century and a quarter, and had helped given rise to and nurtured the fantasy of the odalisque in European painting, was now a thing of the past. Matisse had painted the twilight of the odalisque, and now Picasso provided the final chapter, marking the end of the line for a tradition, a style, and a vision of loveliness.
(fig. O-A) Henri Matisse, Sur la terrasse, Tangier, Morocco, 1912-1913. State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. BARCODE 26007533
(fig. O-AA) North African costumes and textiles collected by Matisse. Photograph, The Librairie Ernest Flammarion. BARCODE 26007526
(fig. O-B) J.-A.-D. Ingres, Grande Odalisque, 1814, Musée du Louvre, Paris. BARCODE 26007373
(fig. O-C) J.-A.-D. Ingres, Le Bain turc, 1862. Musée du Louvre, Paris. BARCODE 26007472
(fig. O-D) Pablo Picasso, Le Harem, Gosol, summer 1906. The Cleveland Museum of Art. BARCODE 26007465
(fig. O-E) Pierre-August Renoir, Parisiennes habillées en algériennes (Le Harem), 1872. The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo. BARCODE 26007458
(fig. O-F) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Algérienne assise, 1881. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. BARCODE 26007441
(fig. O-G) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Concert, 1918-1919. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. BARCODE 26007434
(fig. P-A) Eugène Delacroix, Les Femmes d'Alger, 1834. Musée du Louvre, Paris. BARCODE 26000459
(fig. P-B) Eugène Delacroix, Les Femmes d'Alger, 1849. Musée Fabre, Montpelier. BARCODE 26000442
ART FIG A: Henri Matisse with his model, 1928. Photograph by Man Ray. BARCODE 26007427
ART FIG B: Picasso and Jacqueline. Photograph by Edward Quinn. BARCODE 26007939
ART FIG C: Pablo Picasso and Jacqueline Roque with three paintings by Matisse, Vauvenargues, Spring 1959. BARCODE 25010459
L'Odalisque, harmonie bleue