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Saturday, July 6, 2019

Beauford Delaney and the Mysterious Odalisque

By Maija Brennan

Maija Brennan is the Wells International Foundation's 2019 summer intern. A rising senior at Smith College, she majors in French and art history with a concentration in museum studies. Her eight-week internship focuses on researching the life and art of painter Beauford Delaney and creating an online exhibition of a selection of his works.

As a way to capture likeness or a moment in time, or to represent some key element regarding their identity and the art they create, self-portraits of visual artists date back hundreds of years. Beauford Delaney is known for his elegant and thoughtful portraits of others; he memorialized his friends and family through the loving nature in which he put paint down on the canvas. Alongside those around him, he represented his own face dozens of times throughout his career. His self-portraits are reflections of how he perceived himself outwardly and inwardly.

Self-Portrait with Odalisque, a painting completed in 1943, is a thought-provoking work of art in terms of the subject matter and the intentions behind it. The oil painting depicts Beauford seated on a stool in the lower right hand corner, a guitar in his lap. To his right, a few feet away, is a topless black woman lounging on a mattress. They are surrounded by trees and foliage, a body of water behind them. The portrait is done in a painterly manner - the brush strokes are visible and free, the colors lively and bright.

Untitled (Self-Portrait with Odalisque)
(c. 1943) Oil on panel
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator
Image courtesy of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

The original definition of an “odalisque” is a chambermaid in a Turkish seraglio. Seraglios were the living quarters of the women in Turkish households, and odalisques served the women and mistresses of the home. Beginning in the 19th century, many artists from Western civilizations began traveling to countries where odalisques lived - places dubbed “oriental”: The Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. Because of European political interests in “The Orient,” artists and writers from countries such as France and Great Britain became fascinated with the culture and aesthetics of Eastern civilizations that were worlds away from what they knew as familiar. Some of the most notorious and celebrated works by Eugène Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, two French 19th-century painters, were “oriental” scenes: Turkish baths, village scenes, and richly decorated interior spaces.

Odalisques became frequent subjects in such paintings, and the definition of their social standing and occupation took on new meanings through a Western lens as European artists depicted them as concubines or consorts to the wealthy men with whom they resided. From Ingres, to Picasso and Matisse later in the 20th century, it became common practice to represent these women as sultry and erotic, more often than not lounging on their sides naked and gazing at the viewer. Depictions of “oriental” scenes and people fascinated Western artists and viewers; the “exotic nature” of different ways of life allowed Europeans to both admire the aesthetics of certain things and judge practices that did not correspond with their Western values and beliefs.

Within the context of odalisques in the canon of art history, it is curious that Beauford would decide to depict such a figure in one of his paintings, let alone a self-portrait. During the 1940s, he was in New York City, in the midst of his Greene Street era, and animated works of art representing the scenes and objects he saw in his everyday life were often experiments in abstraction and use of color. It was during this time that Beauford was becoming increasingly interested in modern artists and the techniques they used, both the United States and abroad. A big fan of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, it is possible that he studied and admired their works with odalisques. Perhaps he painted the woman in his self-portrait to create an image of himself as a global modernist, one knowledgeable in the trend of “Orientalism” that had been prominent at the turn of the century.

Self-portraits are oftentimes explorations of new techniques for artists, a way to navigate new methods of creating art. Self-Portrait with Odalisque is more figurative and narrative than the abstract cityscapes and portraits Beauford was completing at the time, so he could have been experimenting with a new method of storytelling in his paintings.

As a gay man wary of sexual promiscuity and eroticism, it is unusual that Beauford would choose to depict a woman that was a symbol for such traits in Western art history. Before completing Dark Rapture (1941), his first portrait of James Baldwin, the girlfriend of Emile Capouya (the man who introduced Baldwin and Beauford) insisted that he paint a nude portrait of her. Beauford was always shy in the figure drawing classes he took at the Art Students’ League with regard to nude portraits and was relieved to know it was against the rules for black artists to be present when there was a white model. The presence of the odalisque, who is black, may be a nod to his painting experience with Emile’s girlfriend, or to the racist rules that were in place in artistic organizations at the time.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)
Edouard Manet
(1863) Oil on Canvas
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Google Art Project - Image in Public Domain

The immediate comparison that comes to mind when viewing Self-Portrait with Odalisque is its similarities with Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), the ground-breaking painting by Edouard Manet. Producing an outcry from the Paris Salon for the distorted use of perspective and the “pornographic” scene of two business men with scantily-clad women, this painting became infamous in Manet’s time. Certain parallels between Beauford’s self-portrait and Manet’s scene are striking. Beauford’s disengagement with the woman is reminiscent of the dynamics among the figures of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe - the two business men seem to be oblivious of the two naked women accompanying them on the picnic. The setting of Manet’s painting, a forest with a body of water in the distance, appears in Beauford’s self-portrait as well.

Yet another compelling aspect to Beauford’s work of art is the space he and the woman are occupying. Is this an allusion to Manet, or did he have a specific location in mind, perhaps a special place from Knoxville or New York?

Beauford did not create art in a vacuum. He was entrenched in the political, social and artistic implications of the United States and Europe of the time, and Self-Portrait with Odalisque reflects many aspects of this reality. The painting is intriguing in that it raises more questions than answers when examined closely. A gorgeous exploration of color and painterly brushstrokes, it is peculiar in the context of his other works. Whether a way to put himself in the shoes of the modernist icons before him, or an exercise in painting the elusive nude female figure, the inclusion of the odalisque in this self-portrait is a fascinating choice with no clear rationale.

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