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Ingres vs. Ingres

Ingres: 1780–1867

Catalog of the exhibition by Vincent Pomarède, Stéphane Guégan, Louis-Antoine Prat, and Éric Bertin
an exhibition at the Louvre, Paris, February 24–May 15, 2006
Paris: Gallimard/Musée du Louvre Éditions, 406 pp., €39.90 (paper)

There always have been and always will be artists who possess a remarkable or uncanny talent and a huge accompanying ambition—and the gift isn’t large enough to sustain the ambition. Max Beckmann, for example, was a powerful painter with a mordant sense of his own era, but among the last places a viewer should look for evidence of his best qualities are the large triptychs by which Beckmann set so much store and yet which are, like so many of his other later, symbol-laden, myth-suffused pictures, unrelievedly portentous. But probably there are few artists where the split between gift and ambition is so striking as it is with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

In a career which ran through nearly the first two thirds of the nineteenth century, Ingres made portraits which, whether in the form of oil paintings or pencil drawings, are among the most extraordinary in the history of art. Then there are the works that, done over the same years, he seems to have thought were his more meaningful achievements. These were the so-called history pictures, whether showing moments in the life of Christ, French kings, or literary and mythological beings, such as Zeus, Paolo and Francesca, and Oedipus. They are pictures which, as made clear by his recent retrospective at the Louvre, an even larger gathering of his work than the 1967 exhibition marking the centennial of his death, may be intriguing in a biographical or theoretical way but are, as works of art, bland, impersonal, or unrefreshingly odd. Depending on what section you were in, the Louvre’s show was exhilarating one moment and flat and lifeless the next. The exhibition presented a towering figure, but a man whose genius was felt only when, leaving himself to one side, he put his energy into recreating the person before him. On his own, free to invent, he was rather a nobody.

Ingres’s story is seemingly inseparable from a tumultuous moment in European history, out of which he emerged as both hero and victim. He was the foremost pupil of Jacques-Louis David, the painter whose images, taken from the Greek and Roman past or from contemporary life, and done over the period from the 1780s to the early nineteenth century, embodied aspects and even goals of the French Revolution and the early years of the Napoleonic era that followed it. Born in 1780 and therefore a young man during the heady days of Napoleon’s reforms at home and conquests abroad, Ingres came into his own (to put it in the broadest terms) during a more confident, even swaggering, time, if not a more truly settled or secure one. His art, accordingly, has crucial similarities to that of his teacher, except that where David painted with an underlying moral sense, an awareness of a continuing social, political, and ethical crisis—seen most spectacularly, perhaps, in The Death of Marat, done not long after the event, in 1793—his student worked with a deeply sensual, and certainly apolitical and amoral, feeling for the material here and now. It was a changeover that the younger man seems not to have understood fully, or wanted to understand.

Ingres was like a son who has all the talent and drive necessary to take over his father’s business, and, charged by his father’s accomplishment, becomes possessed by sheer dutifulness. Yet, because of his own more secure upbringing, and because the more genuinely chaotic era his father lived through is over, he gets only the shell, or form, of what his predecessor did. At the same time, he has mixed feelings about his own unique power—his ability to seize and reconstitute the sentient being before his eyes. Not that Ingres thought of his portraits as hackwork. He brought the same perfectionist intensity to everything he did. He gave himself as fully, in addition, to the sitters he faced in his early years, when he was based largely in Italy and his subjects were frequently friends or chance acquaintances, as he did when, back in France from his middle years on, his subjects were often persons of great wealth and social or political prominence.

It isn’t easy to say how or why Ingres’s portraits are so momentous. In his approach, he wasn’t greatly different from the way Holbein, say, worked in the early 1500s or from the way Bronzino or other Italian portraitists worked some years later. There are in Ingres’s portraits the same miraculous superfine realism untouched by much sense of brittleness or fussiness and the same firm clarity to all the shapes and forms. As with Holbein (or with the earlier Jan van Eyck, with whom Ingres was compared by his first viewers), we are given paintings with beckoning enamel-like surfaces that we feel we look through, to encounter perfectly realized clothes, flesh, upholstered furniture, and a wide range of jewelry, items that, much to our delight, turn out on closer inspection to be no more than passages of sparklingly clear, dense, and glidingly smooth-to-the-touch oil paint.

Ingres, who copied the work of Holbein and that of other earlier artists (a number of his copies were on view at the show), would have proudly agreed that little in his art was new. Always in a sense a son, but having moved on from David, he was certain, by his early forties, that painting had reached its peak with Raphael, and that the best that succeeding artists could do was match the High Renaissance painter (the assumption being that they never could). Ingres’s guiding principle, about which he became only more adamant as he aged—and which was more intimidating than challenging to other artists (and also meant that his followers were likely to be sheep)—was that traditional, time-honored, academically sanctioned values, with a special emphasis put on the importance of line, or form, over color, were the only route to the beautiful.

What Ingres did was to make his sitters more physically tangible and psychologically present than they had been in most earlier portraits, whether by Renaissance artists or David. By the same token, the figures in his pencil portraits, created out of controlled maelstroms of ethereally soft shading, vigorous darting marks, and powerfully assured and sinuous, repeating lines, seem more forthrightly present than the sitters not only in earlier drawings but in the drawings of any era. And where the sitters in earlier portraits by one or another artist tend to be a touch uniform in their presence, Ingres, working with the visual facts presented by the person before him, plus whatever he might have known about the person—in many cases, especially with the drawings, he would not have known a great deal—created one rounded, fully autonomous character after another. Encountering good numbers of these paintings and drawings in the Louvre’s show (or in “Portraits by Ingres,” the staggeringly rich exhibition seen at the National Gallery, London, the Metropolitan Museum, and the National Gallery, Washington, in 1999 and 2000*) was like walking through, as it were, the work of a novelist who is less concerned with a protagonist than an array of characters who, in a flowing, organic way, sum up an entire era.

It is no surprise to learn that Norvins, for example, with his nervous eyes and tight little lips, was at the time the chief of police in Rome, where the picture was made. Granet is the essence of a soulful and dashing artist and appears to have heard this already. Mme Leblanc, who seems to smile with her eyes, is ready to hear, and accept, anything we want to divulge. Mlle Rivière, with her wide, dark eyes and white boa draped over her arms, has proven over time to be a near-peerless image of young womanly grace (see the detail on the cover). Molé, who conveys a rumpled sweetness and playful irony, and might pass as a high school history teacher, turns out to have been a widely admired politician. Mme Moitessier, clearly someone with clout around the house, looks in one portrait to be done in by the pressure of keeping up appearances, while in a second portrait an enigmatic omniscience asserts itself. The sitters in Ingres’s pencil drawings, which are often no more than a foot high, are, as individuals, every bit as substantial to our eyes.

Looking at Ingres’s portraits is such a filling experience it comes as a surprise to realize how pared down his approach was. While in his portrait drawings he might present on the same sheet a couple or siblings, parents and children or children on their own, people and their pets or with their musical instruments, even figures standing at specific locations in a city, his painted portraits generally show only one person, and then almost never in full figure. And while in a handful of the painted portraits he includes a cityscape or landscape behind the sitter, in most he presents the fewest items, none of which, thankfully, come across as keys to who the person is. Yet Ingres is so precise and considered about every square inch of his given portrait that subsidiary elements, which might be no more than the wallpaper behind the sitter, or the jewelry being worn, or the position of his or her body within the picture as a whole, or the particular colors involved, become, as we think back on the work, companions to that person.

In the portrait of Molé, which is set in a darkened and nearly empty room, we are held by bits of light falling on two separate zones of furniture. In the portrait of Baronne James de Rothschild (see illustration on page 6), what catches us, besides the Baronne’s alluring face and amazing gray and red dress, is the relationship between the good amount of plain wall behind her and the precise way she and her dress make up the lower part of the picture, a relationship that suggests a graceful descent down a chutelike space. Mme de Senonnes, in her portrait, also seems to be sliding down and out of the picture, although with more slithery abandon. Behind her is one of Ingres’s mystery-inducing mirrors, showing us, as Ingres paints her reflection, Mme de Senonnes’s inert self. But what most stamps the painting is the ketchup-and-mustard play of her red dress against the golden yellow tones of the sofa she sits on and of the wall behind her. The portrait of Mme Marcotte, whose glassy eyes perhaps indicate allergies, highlights even more unusual colors in the way the sitter’s coppery brown dress comes up against the yellow sofa she is on, a rare conjunction, sour yet autumnal, reminiscent of Josef Albers.

Portraiture, however, was, Ingres professed, a chore. To satisfy a colossal ambition, he couldn’t be a portraitist anyway, but had to work on what his age considered the loftiest ground. The resulting historical, mythological, and religious pictures bespeak huge amounts of energy and industry, but, conveying little palpable sense of inner tension, are costume dramas. The faces we encounter are those of real people who have been carefully observed but have little of the life seen so regularly in the portraits. The faces in the history pictures are essentially those of models waiting for the session to be over. When an emotion is to be expressed, it comes across stridently, or woodenly. The extraordinarily precise and dramatic feeling for color that Ingres shows in his portraits also forsakes him here. Rich hues are so abundantly present that they cancel each other out.

  1. *

    Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch,catalog of the exhibition edited by Gary Tinterow and Philip Conisbee (Abrams/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999).

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