Sunday, September 17, 2017
Queen Caroline Murat and the Treason of Images
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 a green tablecloth and Egyptian imagery sits.
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 Napoleon, 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).
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 Récamier.
Caroline was related to Tokin' Woman Violette Murat; actor Rene Auberjonois (Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H) is a direct descendant.