61 x 69 cm (24 x 27 3/16 in.)
Oval pastel on paper
Signed lower center: C.L. MÜLLER.
• France, Private Collection.
Known as a history painter because he participated in so many Salons, Charles-Louis Lucien Müller was also an excellent draughtsman. The young artist entered the School of Fine Arts when 16 years old, first under Antoine-Jean Gros, called Baron Gros (1771-1835), and then under Léon Cogniet (1794-1880), both of whom were Neoclassical and Pre-Romantic painters who rapidly detected his remarkable gift for drawing.
His success in the Salons was lauded with various rewards and medals. Müller’s work won everyone over: his rank as a history painter allowed him to reach every audience. In the private sphere, the artist was given to a more intimate genre, including a few delicate portraits of women, prized for their exoticism and sensuality.
Recognized by his peers and by public opinion, Müller exercised several positions with high responsibilities: between 1850 and 1853, he headed the Gobelins tapestry manufactory, and then succeeded Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864) in directing the Academy of Fine Arts in 1864, and had a seat on the admission committee for the 1878 World’s Fair.
Sensually reclining with arms raised on a blue silk cushion with yellow stripes, this young woman with a pearl necklace is akin to odalisques, a term from Turkish culture indicating women in the service of the sultan’s harem. The picture’s Orientalism is shown through this semi-nude’s lascivious pose, traditional in depictions of Oriental women. In fact, Müller’s work participated in the artistic and literary trends of Orientalism developed and appreciated in France during the 19th century. The artist liked to portray young women he frequented in Paris and depict them in dreamy environments of which several examples are known to have been rendered in paint (ill. 1 & 2). There are no known indications that the artist went to the Maghreb. Müller’s works narrate an imaginary Orient which were the result of commissions from a clientele seeking to be taken out of their normal surroundings. Like his contemporaries, Müller was influenced by Turkey, and probably later by Egypt after the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Our picture’s oval format contributes to its intimate quality: it immediately places the viewer in the position of a voyeur, as if, through a window, he were discovering this young woman fixing her gaze on him. By using pastel, it is possible to infer a steamy atmosphere, create an evanescent drapery effects, and precisely render the young woman’s flesh tones. The Occidental features of her porcelain face coalesce with an Oriental environment: Müller uses a decorative and vestimentary iconography in the depiction of odalisques propitious for the viewer. Working in pastel accentuates the picture’s sensuality by bringing volume to the different fabrics. The proximity of the cushion and transparent blouse create an effect of blended colors heightened by the red velvet which seems to be a divan, whose color is palely echoed in the coral tones of the sitter’s lips and flower in her hair.
Charles-Louis Lucien Müller had two distinct types of production, so that only his signature makes it possible to apprehend the entire scope of his work. On the one hand is that of the history painter present at official events, and on the other, the artist appreciated by the grand public who satisfied the demands of more intimate commissions which seem to have come out of his private circles, of which our pastel is delicate evidence.