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 …