Odalisque, Woman of Algiers


Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Title: Odalisque, Woman of Algiers
Size: 122.6 x 69.2 cm
Medium: Oil on canvas
Location: National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

Renoir is not known as an Orientalist painter, but he did several Orientalist themed paintings when he travelled to Algiers in 1870.

This painting, Odalisque (1870), features an Arab woman sprawled across the ground with luxurious fabrics weaving around her body in voluptuous waves. Unlike Renoir’s other paintings of females, however, this woman is far from his idealized, meaning French Caucasian, vision: pictorally, a mix of attraction and disdain emerges from this canvas. The woman sits in a provocative pose, legs spread apart and eyes daring the viewer to venture closer. She seems dangerous yet appealing. At the same time, her skin is almost sickly in its yellowish tint, hinting at malnutrition. Ultimately, this creates a paradoxically sensual image that doesn’t conform to Renoir’s usual standards of beauty, specifically French beauty. Thus, while this figure painting is in keeping with Renoir’s fetish for women, it says something about his Orientalist disposition before his trips to Algeria. When he looked at Arab culture, Renoir saw women. He envisioned a harem of dark and mysterious seductresses waiting to pose for him and show him a new type of woman, one he could study and conquer through his artwork.

What actually greeted him in Algeria was anything but this fantasy, and the way Renoir dealt with this “culture shock” is evident in the products of his adventure in Algeria. In his two visits to Algeria, Renoir painted almost thirty works (Benjamin, Renoir 4). For Albert André, these works display how closely Renoir came to understand the people of this land, for he “lived with them, looked at them through his own eyes, and did not paint them en orientaliste” (André xxxvii), as he had in Odalisque. With this kind of description, André favorably places Renoir as a cultured, unbiased man willing and able to separate himself from France’s colonial aspirations in North Africa and see Algeria as it “really” was. Significantly, too, André removes Renoir from the label “orientaliste,” separating him from those Westerners who painted the Arab world through the biased eyes of a citizen of a colonial power. However, inspecting Renoir’s series in Algeria shows that Renoir remained as “orientaliste” as he was in this first attempt at portraying Algeria. Although he begins with an array of cityscapes that seem to illustrate Algerian culture, Renoir ultimately disregards this Arab and Islamic heritage and turns his attention completely to women, showing Renoir’s inability to leave behind his quest for them. Thus, it is essential to maintain the ties between Renoir’s Orientalism and Renoir’s identity. Even Roger Benjamin, the principle expert on Renoir in Algeria, missed this crucial link, suggesting we “put the artist’s familiar biography to the side and see him instead as one player among many in the history of Orientalism and its cultural context” (Benjamin, Renoir 4). It would seem creative and genuine to examine Renoir in Algeria free of his “familiar biography,” as Benjamin suggests, but to separate Renoir’s biography from his Orientalism is not only impossible, it would separate the artist from his art. From idealizing women in France and fantasizing about seductresses of the Near East, Renoir painted Algeria and its people as he wanted to see them. By the end of his stay in Algeria, he had not found his darkly alluring Odalisque and thus turned to idealizing the looks of Algerian women to resemble those French women he painted for much of his career. Disregarding the Algerian culture and molding it to his superficial fetishes and expectations, Renoir’s works in Algeria ended up revolving, inevitably, around Algerian women. Source:

Sarah Dajani, Princeton Class of 2009
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