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The Turban in Ingres’ Work

Writer Julia Laukert took a closer look at the motif of the turban in the work of French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) for this new issue of sisterMAG. He painted arguably the most famous nudes of all time – all featuring the turban as the only piece of clothing.

  • Text: Julia Laukert M.A.

The Turban

Bathers and Odalisques in the Works of Ingres

A turban emphasizes a figure, exudes mystery and attracts attention. In some cultures, headscarves are part of the ensemble of a religious dress code. Elsewhere, a turban-like scarf is worn as an avant-garde fashion accessory. In paintings or photographs, a portrait with a turban usually evokes a special atmosphere. French 19th century painters such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867) liked to adorn their protagonists with headdress in order to evoke an »exotic« expression.

The most famous naked women in art history derive from Ingres’ artistic hands: the bathers and the odalisques. The only piece of clothing they wear is a turban; tied tightly around their hair, or loosely draped or majestically decorated. Apart from the obvious sensual nudity, Ingres’ headscarves in connection with the posture of the models accentuates the erotic message of his works.

In the painting »La Baigneuse« from 1807, the young woman wears such a headdress, which appears to glide along her dark hair. The loosening cloth initiates a moment of exposure, which follows along her naked breast. The frightened expression on the woman’s face automatically turns the viewer into a voyeur caught red-handed.

Close, but no less sensual, is »La Grande Baigneuse« (1808, also known as »The Valpinçon Bather«). The intimate pictorial language of the painting is emphasized not only by the room separated by cloths, prominent rear view and closed posture of the model, but also by the tightly tied headscarf.

»La Grande Odalisque«, created by the renowned classicist in 1814, shows the turban on the woman’s head solemnly staged in comparison to the two previous works. It is complemented by tasteful pearl hair ornaments. Here the seductive gaze is led downwards along the naked back to further accessories: a fan of peacock feathers, pleated and opulent fabrics, an opium pipe and an incense burner on the right edge of the picture. The odalisque’s turban reflects the solemn and self-confident atmosphere of the scenery.

What is striking about the paintings is that they always feature a similar cloth: a light, striped fabric, sometimes with and other times without fringes and ornaments. The same can be observed through his great inspiration, Raphael (Raffaello Santi, 1483 – 1520). The Italian High Renaissance painter used the same headscarf as his lover, La Fornarina, in 1518/1520 on his model, which Ingres’ odalisque wears three hundred years later. Like the great concubine, the baker’s daughter in Raphael’s painting appears confidently seductive. Her headscarf is bound in the same manner as that of the odalisque. It’s no wonder, since Ingres knew the work and life story of his idol. He fantasized about both in the painting »Raffaello e la Fornarina« from 1814 in the studio of the Italian master. In the background of this painting you can see the famous Madonna della Sedia (1512 – 1514) by Raphael, whose head is covered by a similar cloth. Raphael was inspired by the fashion of the Balzo: turban-like headwear worn by both women and men of Italy’s upper classes.

The fashion of Raphael’s time also plays an important role in Ingres’ works. In addition to peacock feathers, powder trousers, transparent fabrics and incense vessels, turbans were a part of the »à la Turque« trend emerging in the 19th century. The Turquerie describes picturesque oriental images depicting harem women, slaves, horsemen or Arabian horses. Artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Eugène Delacroix fell for this hype and used the motifs to create arabesque imagery.

Interest in the Orient can be traced back to Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (1798 – 1801), the conquest of Algeria by French troops from 1830 onwards, as well as travelogues and literary accounts like the story of The Arabian Nights. Ingres, for example, developed his fascination for the exotic only from stories. He himself did not travel to any Islamic country. Just how much Ingres was inspired by the idea of a harem can be seen in the painting »The Turkish Bath«, which he painted at 82 years old in 1862. In this masterpiece, one encounters the familiar nude female figure from the rear view sporting a secured headscarf. But there is also a multitude of other headdress on naked women. The round painting (tondo), which resembles a keyhole, reveals Ingres’ oversexualized impression of a hammam.

The oriental paintings, in which light-skinned ladies with turbans roll around on floors or upholstered furniture, are depictions of pure fantasy. They formed an alternative to the well-known, naked mythological figures in order to once again legitimately display the female body in an artistic context. The oriental setting, which is accented by Islamic accessories and in which these fantastical performances take place, shows on the one hand the Eurocentric view of the southern and eastern Mediterranean during the 19th century. On the other hand, the works of this period also reveal a strong longing for escape from everyday and social constraints as well as the prevailing, prudish marital morality.