Sunday, September 17, 2017

Queen Caroline Murat and the Treason of Images

Caroline Bonaparte was born in 1782, some 13 years after her brother Napoleon. At the age of 17, she married Napoleon's General Joachim Murat, a dashing, charismatic soldier.

Murat had commanded the cavalry during the French Egyptian expedition of 1798 under Napoleon. It was during the French occupation of Egypt that many of the soldiers—including, I contend, Alexandre Dumas's father—discovered hashish and brought it back to France.

In 1808, the Murats were made King and Queen of Naples and in 1814, Joachim signed a treaty with Austria in an attempt to save their throne, an act Napoleon regarded as treason.

This is the same year that Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted his very interesting portrait of Caroline Murat (above). Unlike earlier portraits that depict her as a dewey, maternal creature, Ingres dresses her in a serious black dress and hat, the plume of which mimics the smoke emitting from an image of Mt. Vesuvius(?) erupting in the background. Her gaze is forceful, knowing. She stands at a table, almost an altar, on which Egyptian imagery sits.

Also in 1814, Ingres scandalized the art world with his painting La Grande Odalisque, which was commissioned by Caroline. Nearly every art historian writes about how the painting broke with Ingres's formal realism by elongating the body of the nude. No one else seems to have noticed the striking resemblance of the model to Caroline: the same knowing eyes; the pert, upturned mouth; the glowing skin for which she was reputed.

If the painting was thought to be modeled on the Queen of Naples, painted the same year that she and her husband betrayed her brother, that would have been quite the scandal indeed. Adding to that are the hints in Caroline's portrait pointing to smoke and Egypt. Napoleon himself was an early prohibitionist about hashish; perhaps like the Vietnam war generals of late he discovered it made his men too peaceful.

Odalisques were harem girls, often depicted holding a hookah in the mid 1800s (e.g. Delacroix's Women of Algiers). Tucked away at the feet of the woman in Ingres's painting is a pipe holding what well may have been hashish, and what looks like an incense burner emitting smoke. She is holding a fan, the handle of which looks like the mouthpiece of a hookah. Indeed, her elongated body could be said to resemble a pipe, with emphasis on the bowl (buttocks).

It makes me wonder if Magritte's 1929 painting "La trahison des images" references Ingres's Odalisque when it declares, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." Why, of all objects, did Magritte choose to paint a pipe? Of course, it works as a surrealistic statement ("This is not a pipe; it's a painting of a pipe"); but does the treason (trahison) in the image perhaps refer to Mme. Murat's treason? Une pipe is also slang for a prostitute; was Caroline being disparaged by either painting, or both? (Because as we know the surest and easiest way to disparage a woman is to call her a whore.) Or was the fact that Ingres painted a pipe at his model's feet scandalous?

Historically, French paintings often had political intent. I remember my high school French teacher impressing upon me what a sensation Jacques-Louis David's painting The Death of Marat caused in 1793. Ingres studied with David, and the model's pose in his Odialisque is similar to David's Portrait of Madame RĂ©camier.

Caroline was related to Tokin' Woman Violette Murat; actor Rene Auberjonois (Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H) is a direct descendant.

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