I’ve always disliked the Rococo, and pretty much any artist who paints pink cheeks (Rubens, Renoir, Hals, etc.). For me, it’s not the pleasure, desire, or playfulness of the Rococo and other similar confections, but it is the one-note, overly-sweet eagerness to please that irritates. It seems like artistic complexity has been pushed aside in favor of a story that affirms what the viewer already believes to be or would like to be true. However, last year I found myself in the awkward situation of being drawn to the work of Francois Boucher or, more specifically, his famous Brown Odalisque (1745).
I was in transition with my work so perhaps it was a moment of weakness. I might have seen it coming, after years of surreptitiously poring over a book of the complete drawings of Ingres, breaking his figure studies into parts that might become compositions for new paintings. Now, however, I have started a group of paintings of fabric and the human form, where the fabric and the figures are equally important. The more I looked at different paintings for inspiration – drapery, clothing, robes, blankets – the more I saw a range of psychologies in the fabrics themselves. It was when I noticed the sexual character of the fabric that Boucher came to mind. I dug out a long neglected book, Reclining Nude, to look at the full page reproduction of Brown Odalisque, which is a painting of a very pink-cheeked, semi-clad, young woman with a distracted smile, her ample buttocks emerging upwards from yards and yards of blue velvet. The painting struck me as compelling and relevant, and I wanted to understand why. Moreover, I wanted to study the nuances of the painting, the shadow the fabric casts on the leg, the way the fabric is folded, the sexy, languid feet and hands.
I realized that I would be in Europe at the end of November, and that I could find my way over to the Louvre to see the painting in person. This seemed like such a luxury. We were five days away from going when the attacks in Paris happened. In the end, my boyfriend and I decided to go anyway. The city was somber and the Louvre was very quiet. I put off seeing the painting until the end of the day, but the room had closed. I returned on my own the next morning to find the Rococo section empty. It was both wonderful to have that place to myself, but it also felt strange. I walked past Ingres’ wonderful Valpinçon Bather (1808) that I had spent such a long time with the night before. A few rooms away, there she was – Boucher’s nude. The frivolity of her pose felt in sharp contrast with the darkened mood of Paris, and yet she remained unchanged.
The painting was much smaller than I expected. It was more of a private moment than a public declaration. In the past, I might have been interested in her butt, how funny it is and how much it is a focal point of the painting. Now, for me, the fabric had a sexuality of its own; the butt became redundant. I was looking for something ambiguous, a part of the body less identifiable, the feeling of a whole in a smaller piece. There was the way the fabric comes in front of the foot, between her legs, in front of her thigh, the way her lower left leg becomes a shape, a direction, an independent form. I saw the many paintings I could make from it. I felt an excitement sketching smaller compositions from the larger one, recognizing that this one painting could keep me busy for ten years. Because every part of the painting was charged, couldn’t every part become its own painting? I sketched. I took detailed pictures as sample compositions, which I’ve included here. I tried my best to give myself over to it and absorb what I could.
This might seem like pure reverence, but it feels different. Whether or not Brown Odalisque is a good painting is, in some ways, beside the point. As an artist there are paintings you like and paintings that you can use and the two aren’t always the same. What you need isn’t always, or even often, your taste. In this way, taste might be a limitation. After looking at it, thinking about it, now writing about it, I concede that Brown Odalisque is a terrific painting. It is delightful and erotic. I get a little thrill each time I see it, even in reproduction.
Ellen Altfest is an artist living and working in New York City.