Odalisque / Odalisque by Eugène Durieu / Eugène Delacroix - 1833/1857 private collection Odalisque / Odalisque by Eugène Durieu / Eugène Delacroix - 1833/1857 private collection

Odalisque / Odalisque

oil on canvas / photography •
  • Eugène Durieu / Eugène Delacroix - 1800 - 1874 Eugène Durieu / Eugène Delacroix 1833/1857

There a some experiments in history that are difficult to repeat today. Here is one that many artists discussed in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is an experiment that searches for the answer to the questions of spontaneity,and if finished photo's aren't always looking a bit spoiled in regard to sketches. Eugène Delacroix passed round a set of unusual photos’. Calotypes (salt prints) taken by his friend Eugène Durieu. Unusual because they were among the very first humans to be photographed in the nude. “Poorly built, and oddly shaped in places” Delacroix said. And afterwards offered his friends a set of prints by the Renaissance artist Marcantio Raimondi. The question posed was perhaps the question of a beauty contest. But also of opinion: Which depicts the human body better: lens or hand? Current machine or ancient man? Could photographic nudity stand up against idealized bodies? We can recreate this experiment today because many of the photographs Delacroix and Durieu took together have survived, as have the drawings that Delacroix made from them.

First, we look at the photo. Durieu was an amateur. Delacroix staged the scene, and brought the model. Durieu did the technical bit. It wasn't nudity for nudities sake. It was an academic study. And as such, it needed an academic title to excuse the nudity. Depicted was not a naked lady, but an odalisque—the depiction of a female slave in an Ottoman seraglio. Perhaps we will see that she is covered, but to our modern eyes there is nothing much to mention. Yet she was short; her chin was sagging a little, her breasts uneven. All contributing to nineteenth century unpleasantness. Yet the photo was large and could be used over and over, and over again. And would remain the same.

We then turn to the oil sketch Delacroix made from it. The painting is still called odalisque. She is more clothed. Her body is slightly longer.Her breasts more even and slight and her face more slender. He transformed the harsh studio into the odalisque's seraglio. Delacroix had a vision. He loved the new technology and its naturalism. But he thought that the amount of detail depicted was a bit much. Durieu helped him on the way. After them, many, many painters used photography in some way. Painters like Gustave Courbet, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, G F Watts., Breitner and many others.

Back to the experiment, do you think the lady in the photo is poorly built? Does the painting provide a more pleasing look?

- Erik