Ingres and the Subjugation of the Female FigureOne of the things that always amuses me in teaching art history is the reaction of teenage boys in viewing some of the classic nude female figures. Once they get past the initial embarrassment, which is often covered up with humour or at least some giggles, there always arises the question, "How come they're all so fat?" It is, of course, a ready-made opening into which I can launch a discourse on the ever-changing ideals of feminine beauty. And the boys are right. By our centrefold standards, every last one of them could stand to lose thirty pounds. What I try to explain initially is that in the period of time that they are exploring, being thin, indicated poverty--a lack of the wherewithal to feed oneself adequately. "Robust" proportions, on the other hand, were a sign of a sumptuous (though not necessarily healthy) lifestyle and therefore some degree of wealth.
Artists and designers are directly responsible for our ideals of feminine beauty. Today we blame designers for dictating that every woman should be six-foot tall and barely tip the scales at 120. However the further we go back into art history, the more responsibility artists, particularly painters, have to bear. Before men even began painting the female nude, they began to make value judgements, often sexual in nature, as to the ideal model. And having chosen her, they continued to mould her by pushing paint this way and that until they arrived at their ideal Venus, Aphrodite, Eve, or Odalisque. Whether goddess or prostitute, their images had an effect upon all those who viewed them. Women took their "looks" based upon what these artists dictated because men chose their women based upon these ideals.
One of the most grossly dictatorial artists along this line was Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (pronounced Ang). Born in 1780, he lived to the ripe old age of 87 and during much of this time he was such a powerful influence upon both French painting and high society few had the nerve to dispute his elegantly drawn female figures whether clothed or otherwise. The most prodigious student of Jacques-Louis David, (pronounced Da-veed), Ingres emphasised drawing over painting, mass over colour. His Grande Odalisque, painted in 1814, is perhaps his best-known work, and certainly a prime example of the lengths to which an artist will go to bend, shape, fold and mutilate the female figure into his ideal of feminine beauty. Everything about the Turkish harem mistress is elegantly boneless. There is a contorted quality to the pose, and her arms, her legs, even her fingers remind one not so much of limbs but tentacles. Even her feet seem to lack any anatomical structure. Everything is serpentine. Her torso is elongated to the point Ingres seems to have added at least two or three extra vertebrae, yet her hips are generous to a fault. Though a master of drapery, textures, and painting technique, he would put to shame today's fashion designers in his single-minded subjugation of the female figure.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 June 1998