Dreams of Desire 64 (Boucher’s Odalisques)

Portrait of Marie-Louise O'Murphy-Francois Boucher 1752
Portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy (Blonde Odalisque)-Francois Boucher 1752

During the period when Baroque reigned supreme, overt eroticism all but disappeared from Western Art. It would take the emergence of Rococo, the florid, playful and frankly somewhat sluttish younger French sister of Baroque, to take art back into the boudoir.

Francois Boucher was one of the leading lights of Rococo and enjoyed the patronage of the prime mover of the style, Madame de Pompadour, the Official Chief Mistress of King Louis XV. As well as mythological genres scenes featuring Venus he painted two odalisques stripped of all allegorical trappings, the L’Odalisque Brune from 1745 and the L’Odalisque Blonde from 1752.

France was ongoing a vogue for the mysterious, exotic East during the Ancien Regime. Several libertine novels including Denis Diderot Les bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels) and Crebillon Fils La Sopha (The Sofa) are set in fantasy Oriental lands, partly to give full reign to the imagination but also to disguise the political satire on the luxuriant and decadent Court of Louis XV. Part of the attraction, for men anyway, were the stories of odalisques; mistresses or concubines in a harem.

Boucher’s L’Odalisque Brune from 1745 was reportedly a portrait of Madame Boucher , which led Diderot, Encyclopedist and somewhat risque writer of the above-mentioned  Les bijoux indiscrets and La Religieuse (The Nun) to state that Boucher was prostituting his wife.  L’Odalisque Blonde is a portrait of the courtesan Marie-Louise O’Murphy. King Louis XV was so taken with this painting that he arranged for Marie-Louise to become a petite maitresse (lesser mistress). At least one of her children was the King’s.

François_Boucher_-_Brown_Odalisque_(L'Odalisque_Brune)_-_WGA2879[1]
L’Odalisque Brune-Francois Boucher 1745

27 thoughts on “Dreams of Desire 64 (Boucher’s Odalisques)

    1. It is a lovely painting though the whole period is very dubious from a female viewpoint. I was shocked to learn that Madame De Pompadour official title was actually Official Chief Mistress then there were Official Mistresses, lesser mistresses and then the ones that didn’t go pass one night. Apparently it was said that he was Father of the Country not just least in the metaphorical sense but in an actual sense.

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  1. My first thought in regard to the paintings is that neither of them seem to be particularly happy. I also think the pose especially for the blonde, doesn’t look very comfortable … the short couch, bent at the torso like she is. To be designated Chief Mistress, Lesser Mistress etc. and to be part of a harem of concubines. What a life. Although maybe that is just me applying my modern sensibilities and values to another time. Anyway, the paintings are lovely and another interesting bit of art history, Mr. Cake.

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    1. Oh I do know about Madame Boucher she seems happy enough with her pearl earrings and fascinator and with a come hither look. As for Mademoiselle O’Murphy, well she was a survivor. After she got too big for her breeches Madame de Pompadour married her off to a nobleman, the first of three husbands, two of whom she outlived . She also dodged the guillotine during the Revolution and married a moderate Republican MP twenty seven years her junior. She died aged 77, not bad considering the times and that she came from a family of downwardly mobile Irish aristocrats, her father was a convicted spy and blackmailer and her mother a prostitute and thief. Also to be fair to the libertines, both Laclos and De Sade did address feminism, Laclos very eloquently and De Sade came up with the most horrific liberated woman in Juliette.

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      1. Oh man… schooled. I suppose it’s all in the eye of Monsieur Boucher. As for Mmlle O’Murphy, what a checkered story. Good for her landing on her feet (sort of) and the May December romance. What a great story!

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      2. It was a very time for women to advance in the world without recourse to their ‘charms’ unless you were from an impeccable background of course. Even Madame de Pompadour would had a fierce intellect, a fine eye and discerning taste spent half her time procuring and manoeuvring mistresses. However a change was coming. The battle of the sexes was heating up along with the battle for equality and justice and the ancien regime was the breeding ground for a lot of things, if only to destroy it. Laclos Maquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons is a brilliant strong female character who states the case for feminism wonderfully in letter 81.

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      3. What a waste of a fine mind. Minds… of course. Well, thank goodness times have changed. Hmmm… at least in other parts of the world. Here in the US it feels like we’re regressing.

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      4. She did in a kind of way run France though, and she certainly dictated the currents of the Rococo movement that spread through Europe. With every revolution there is a reaction so a step forward and a step back. I doubt we will ever go back to the 18th century, though there are still parallels, no matter how much some reactionary bastards what to.

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      5. Seriously, this whole Harvey Weinstein thing is disgusting. Even more so because so many knew about it and said nothing. But then again this country voted for a president who acts the same way. What does that tell you?

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      1. Oh I think you’ll enjoy his style, kind of irreverent and loose, but he clearly has a gift for TV art history, he’s one of the best on the box here, he did a very good series on ancient Islamic / Judaic stuff, amazing some of the places he goes to, I think he’s done 4 or 5 major series over the last few yrs, its good viewing 🙂

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  2. Thanks for sharing the link, Mr. Cake. My take on the two paintings- I absolutely loved the first one, it seems that the subject of the portrait is lost in her own world may be daydreaming about her lover or whoever was the object of her desire then….from the languid pose and the ease and intrigue with which she is looking at something/someone (I wish I knew this little mysterious detail here); to me, it looks like as if she has just woken up from a sweet afternoon siesta or maybe stepped out of her beauty bath smelling like a fragrant bouquet of freshly plucked flowers.
    Now, the portrait of Madame Boucher looks like the poor woman has been forced against her will to lay in that position (someone might have had pushed her and ordered her to remain still in that awkward position). She looks very uncomfortable.

    As you know, I am a complete novice when it comes to Art. But after reading your piece, I looked up Rococo. Now based on my observation, I would again trouble you with a few questions here (and you can choose to not answer if you find them utterly absurd):

    1) There was an extensive use of pastel shades in Rococo style of paintings and this usage of subdued hues is a common characteristic of Oriental art as well. Pardon my ignorance here, but can you tell me if this use of delicate colors was a nod to the eastern practices.

    2) I observed a lot of gilding also, so I am curious if that fascination with gold is an import from the Ottomans?

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    1. Excellent points Miss Piyali…I am not sure that the Rococo paintings were familiar with Eastern Art at that stage, probably more of a reaction against the dark hues and dramatic chiaroscuro of the Baroque. As for the gold it could be a nod to what was deemed excessive Oriental luxury of the Ottomans, and which the Court was frequently portrayed in literature as emulating (for satirical purposes). I like you take on the two reclining ladies!

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