Matisse, Bazille and Picasso Explore the "Odalisque" in Norton Simon Micro-Exhibit

Published : Thursday, February 14, 2019 | 5:50 AM

Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena hosts an exhibit of works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Frederic Bazille featuring the “odalisque,” meaning harem slave or concubine, a popular subject in European art throughout the colonial period which seems to have visually summed up at once sensuality, indolence and luxe.

The small-scale focus exhibition, “Matisse/Odalisque,” opens on Feb. 22 and runs through June 17. It gathers seven such subjects from the Norton Simon’s collections

These erotic images of women in the geographically vague “Orient” expressed 21st century standards of race and gender.

Pictures of odalisques were often a matter of creative fantasy and invention rather than one of cultural documentation. Harem environments were constructed in the artist’s studio using models dressed in costume and a mélange of exotic props, and artists did not always disguise the fact that their scenes were staged, whether by depicting the odalisque changing into her costume or appropriating imagery from famous precedents. Revealing the picture’s fiction did not detract from its visual appeal.

Among the works in the exhibition are Bazille’s “Woman in a Moorish Costume (1869),” Picasso’s “Women of Algiers, Version I (1955),” and Matisse’s “Odalisque with Tambourine (Harmony in Blue) (1926).”

The works show how artists exploit the tension between reality and artifice in these images.

Matisse, for example, claimed that he made odalisques as an excuse to “paint the nude,” and because he had seen harems firsthand on his trips to Morocco. Yet the numerous odalisques that he produced in Nice in the 1920s revel in the imaginary, with excessively decorative environments that threaten to subsume the female figure altogether.

Matisse/Odalisque contextualizes this artist’s distinctive approach to the orientalist theme with a range of examples from the 19th and 20th centuries. It demonstrates that artists consistently accentuated the seductive aspect of the odalisque by foregrounding color, ornament, and dazzling surface effects.

Accompanying the exhibit are tours and talks, “Matisse’s Odalisque in Context,” on February 23 and March 23, and a lecture on “Matisse and his Models,” by Emily Talbot, Associate Curator at Norton Simon Museum, on March 2.

For more information, visit or call (626) 449-6840.

Norton Simon Museum is at 411 West Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena.

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