Friends of THATLou – Ann Mah

The Friends of the THATLou series is running for the month of November with guest blog posts from just that, Friends of THATLou:

I am honored to continue the Friends of THATLou series with celebrated author Ann Mah. Winner of the James Beard culinary scholarship to study in Bologna and author of the upcoming book Mastering the Art of French Eating (Viking Penguin, fall 2013), Ann’s blog concerns itself predominately with – you guessed it, FOOD!! Delicious food which she also photographs beautifully. Ann’s a funny Friend of THATLou, insofar as she hasn’t actually been on a treasure hunt (living in Washington DC makes the commute a bit of an issue on those 1st Sunday of the months), but she and her diplomat husband will make their way on a hunt at one point. And in the meantime she is a really lovely blogging buddy whose visits cheer me no end. Her last book Kitchen Chinese (Harper Collins, 2010) has been the loudest object in my pile of things to pack for BA, hot to get to my greedy hands the minute we land in BA!!

For this series Ann’s contributed a piece on her favorite piece at the Louvre, so without further ado I shall leave it to her beautiful, clear voice:

La Grande Odalisque, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

La Grande Odalisque, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (taken from Wikipedia)

I first saw her in my 20s, introduced by an ex-boyfriend with exquisite taste in art. On his fridge was a postcard with a detail of her eye, calm and oval, watchful. At the time, I could hardly pronounce the artist’s name — Ingres — that nasal vowel, the “r” scraped across the back of the throat. But I felt like I knew that painting, or, rather, like it knew me. Possessed me.

The boyfriend and I didn’t last, thank goodness, but I remembered that postcard on the fridge. The eye. I knew it immediately when I saw it again a few years later in a gallery at the Louvre. It stared at me across a room, drew me closer. In the whole painting, I could see the subject’s cool beauty — the wary face, the ivory skin, the limbs elegant and impossibly long. In fact, they were actually anatomically impossible — but I didn’t know that then.

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres painted La Grande Odalisque in 1813 as a commission for Caroline Murat, the sister of Napoléon and the Queen of Naples. The two met in Rome, where the French neo-classic artist was living in self-imposed exile, sulky over the Parisian art world’s negative reception of his work. For the painting, he drew upon his interpretation of Middle Eastern culture to create an odalisque, a harem girl enslaved by a sultan. The room is rendered in such perfect detail, you can almost feel the sink of the couch, the wrinkled crumple of the sheets, hear the whisper of silk drapes and the peacock feather fan in her hand. In contrast, the Odalisque’s limbs are so long, her spine so sinuous, they’re almost abstract, certainly fantastical.

After a string of bad reviews, Ingres had high hopes for the painting, which he sent to the Paris Salon de 1819. Alas, the critics hated it. They mocked his “anatomical distortions,” claiming his “creature” had three extra vertebrae (modern analysis counts an extra five). Once again, Ingres was crushed, both emotionally and financially. He began to draw quick portrait sketches just to make a living. Though he eventually achieved critical acclaim in 1824, with his portrait of Louis-François Bertin, also in the Louvre, the thin-skinned painter remained wary of the French art establishment for most of his long life.

Louis-Francois Bertin, by Ingres (taken from Wikipedia)

Louis-Francois Bertin, by Ingres (taken from Wikipedia)

These days, the painter the critics loved to hate is well respected as a portraitist and Neoclassicist and his much-mocked Grande Odalisque is considered his most famous nude. The painting moves around a bit, but on my last visit to the Louvre, I found her not too far from the Mona Lisa. The crowds rushed to see da Vinci’s sly-smiled beauty and I was left with Ingres’s creation, to admire her long-limbed elegance and impossible beauty, to gaze at that calm, cool eye and feel its gaze upon me.

Ann can be found on her blog on twitter @annmahnet and facebook

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