The Turkish Bath  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Turkish Bath is an 1862 painting by the 82-year-old Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, showing nude women in a harem. Originally rectangular, it was only converted to its present tondo form by the artist in 1863. Its erotic content did not provoke a scandal (as compared, say, with Manet's publicly-exhibited 1863 Déjeuner sur l'herbe) since for much its life it has remained in private collections. It is now in the Louvre.

Contents

Background

When Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, director of the French Académie de peinture painted a highly-colored vision of a turkish bath (illustration, right), he made his eroticized Orient publicly acceptable by his diffuse generalizing of the female forms, who might all have been of the same model. If his painting had simply been retitled "In a Paris Brothel," it would have been far less acceptable. Sensuality was seen as acceptable in the exotic Orient.

The Turkish Bath was finished in a rectangular format in 1859, was revised in 1860 before being turned into a tondo. Ingres signed and dated it in 1862, although he made additional revisions in 1863. (Prat, 2004, p. 90.)

History

Production

Ingres relished the irony of producing an erotic work in his old age, painting an inscription of his age (AETATIS LXXXII) on the work - in 1867 he told others that he still retained "all the fire of a man of thirty years". He did not paint this work from live models, but from several croquis and paintings he had produced over the course of his career, re-using 'bather' and 'odalisque' figures (he had earlier produced La Grande Odalisque) he had previously drawn or painted as single figures on a bed or beside a bath. The figure best known to have been copied is from his The Bather of Valpinçon, reproduced here almost identically and forming the central element of the new composition. The figure with her arms raised above her head in the right foreground, however, is based on an 1818 croquis of the artist's wife Madeleine Chapelle (1782-1849), though her right shoulder is lowered whereas her right arm is raised (an anatomical inconsistency usual in Ingres's work - La Grande Odalisque has three additional vertebrae). The other bodies are juxtaposed in various unlit areas behind them.

Legacy

The painter's first buyer was a relation of Napoleon III, but he handed it back some days later, his wife having found it "unsuitable" ("peu convenable"). It was finally bought in 1865 by Khalil Bey, a former Turkish diplomat who added it to his collection of erotic paintings, which also included The Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet.

Edgar Degas demanded that The Turkish Bath be shown at the exposition universelle, in the wake of which came contrasting reactions - Paul Claudel went so far as to compare it with a "cake full of maggots". At the start of the 20th century patrons wished to offer The Turkish Bath to the Louvre, but the Louvre's council refused it twice. After the national collections of Munich offered to buy it the Louvre finally accepted it in 1911, thanks to a gift by the Société des Amis du Louvre, to whom the patron Maurice Fenaille made a 3-year interest-free loan of 150,000 Francs for the purpose.

Orientalist inspiration

Ingres was very quickly marked by the Orientalist current, re-launched by Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. In 1806, on leaving for Italy, he copied out in his notebooks a text extolling 'the baths of the seraglio of Mohammed', in which can be read a description of a harem where one:

"goes into a room surrounded by sofas [...] and it is there that many women destined for this use attend the sultan in the bath, wiping his handsome body and rubbing the softest perfumes into his skin; it is there that she must then take a voluptous rest"

In 1825, he copied a passage from Letters from the Orient by Lady Mary Montagu, who had accompanied her British diplomat husband to the Ottoman Empire in 1716 - her letters had been re-published eight times in France alone between 1763 and 1857, adding to the Orientalist craze there. The passage Ingres copied was entitled "Description of the women's bath at Adrianople" and reads:

I believe there were two hundred women there in all. Beautiful naked women in various poses... some conversing, others at their work, others drinking coffee or tasting a sorbet, and many stretched out nonchalantly, whilst their slaves (generally ravishing girls of 17 or 18 years) plaited their hair in fantastical shapes.

Even so, in contrast to Delacroix (who had visited an Algerian harem in person), Ingres never travelled to Africa or the Middle East to see such subjects in person, and the courtesans shown are more Caucasian and European than Middle Eastern or African in appearance. For Ingres the oriental theme was above all a pretext for portraying the female nude in a passive and sexual context. Exotic elements are few and far between in the image - musical instruments, a censer and a few ornaments.

See also




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