“Ingres in Italia”
Ingres Centennial: Drawings, Water-colors, and Oil Sketches from the American Collection, Fogg Art Museum
IngresA Biographical and Critical Study
A number of books and a series of splendid exhibitions in Paris, Rome, and Harvard to commemorate the centenary of his death have recently thrown some brilliant light on the life and achievement of Ingres. But the more we see and know of him the more strange he becomes. How appropriate it is that, early in his career, he should have been one of the first artists since antiquity to paint the riddle of the Sphinx! For everything about him is puzzling. He was a man whose devoted fidelity to Raphael and to his two successive wives was a legend in his lifetime—a lifetime that embraced the Romantic era, which established the cult of Michelangelo, and the Second Empire, which established the cult of adultery—and yet his feeblest pictures are those which depend most on Raphael, and his most poignant are those which celebrate guilty passion.
For Jupiter and Thetis, Raphael and the Fornarina, Stratonice and Antiochus, and Paolo and Francesca—the only four legends illustrating the relationship between man and woman which ever attracted him—are surely the only four of his “historical” paintings which still speak strongly to us. An infringement of conventional morality characterizes all these themes, but more striking still is the lack of any real communication between the couples. Thetis “slithers like an eel around the immobile giant” (I quote Professor Rosenblum’s expressive phrase) in a vain attempt to seduce Jupiter; Francesca and Stratonice will yield, of course, but how virginal, how demure, how reluctant even, their features, compared to the tumultuous energies that rack and distort the bodies of Paolo and Antiochus. Strangest of all are the pictures of Raphael. Ever since Vasari, writers have elaborated stories about this artist who was so “very amorous and fond of women and always swift to serve them” that he neglected his work on their behalf. Yet in every version of the subject painted by Ingres, the Fornarina is determined to seduce an almost indifferent Raphael, who turns from the woman herself to gaze with complacent pride at the portrait he has just painted of her.
As an allegory of the relationship between art and life this no doubt has general application: it is particularly relevant to Ingres. In her Introduction to the admirably produced catalogue of superlative drawings shown at Harvard, Miss Agnes Mongan writes that “one has only to turn these pages to know which sitters appealed to the artist, and which bored him. He did not, perhaps he could not, mask his feelings.” This is true enough of the drawings, which again and again radiate tenderness and vitality; but if one applies it to the paintings one can only assume (in the face of a certain amount of external evidence to the contrary) that few indeed of his sitters did appeal to him. Among all the brilliant and diverse portraits exhibited in Paris, only one (that of Mlle. Gonin from the Taft Museum in Cincinnati) showed a woman smiling with her …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.