Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; drawing by David Levine

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 eyes as well as her lips, and at the same time—because of the relative simplicity of her pose—breaking through the sometimes suffocating “style” which, as Baudelaire pointed out, Ingres used to impose on his subjects.

BUT BAFFLING though his psychology remains, the principal problem which faces the lover of Ingres is an arthistorical one. In his Introduction to the valuable catalogue of the exhibition held in Paris, M. Michel Laclotte, the conservateur-en-chef of the paintings in the Louvre, has pointed to the dilemma that faced the organizers. Should the choice of works shown be limited to those pictures and drawings (mostly portraits and nudes) which are already widely appreciated, thus ensuring a certain and uncontroversial success, or should examples be included of those historical and mythological scenes which the artist himself considered to be of incomparably greater importance, but which (both in his day and in ours) have always disconcerted his admirers? This second course was adopted, and rightly, but there were reservations none the less: “c’est volontairement qu’ont été finalement rejetées plusieurs oeuvres importantes, telles que la Remise des clefs à Saint Pierre, la Jeanne d’Arc et le dessin d’Homère déifié.”

Other important pictures could not be secured for all the usual reasons, but even when these are accounted for, it is clear that some embarrassment was felt about the small “troubador” paintings illustrating, with much local color, themes from medieval and Renaissance history, only a meager selection of which was shown. Can one think of any other artist of comparable stature who would pose these problems of selection? It was not, after all, the less significant works that had to be excluded—there were always admiring crowds around the marvelous portrait drawings which he himself affected to despise—but the major paintings by which Ingres felt certain he would be remembered. It would seem that a policy of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark is the only one capable of keeping his reputation secure.


Even the sternest of art historians will admit that a great painter can sometimes produce bad or indifferent works, but a walk around the galleries of the Petit Palais was enough to show that so simple an explanation will not suffice for Ingres. The Apotheosis of Homer, which greeted the visitor on arrival (if so friendly a gesture can be attributed to that forbidding picture—“a glacial transposition in paint of an already mediocre bas-relief” in the words of Huysmans); the stony severity of the Virgil Reading the Aeneid; even the Martyrdom of St. Symphorian and the Jesus among the Doctors—all these were so obviously painted with the same authority and sensitivity, the same intellectual mastery and delicacy of observation that captivate us in the nudes and portraits. And the old idée reçue that Ingres was not a colorist could not survive the most casual inspection. In the face of such difficult works, one reason for our unease may be a lurking suspicion that we are not up to them. But the unease remains, and everyone who loves Ingres has tried to account for it. At the retrospective exhibition of 1855 Delacroix (who, of course, did not love Ingres) coined a phrase that has had a long life: “the complete expression of an incomplete intelligence”; but for all its ingenuity this explanation will not do. Whether or not intelligence is what we look for in art, it is certainly not lacking in the work of Ingres.

TWO NEW BOOKS on the artist put forward theories that are in broad agreement. Professor Rosenblum points especially to the “precarious proportioning of the abstract and realistic components of his style,” so that we are often disturbed by the intrusion of a realistic nineteenth-century portrait in the middle of a stiff, hieratic, and medievalizing theme. Indeed, the far more consistently archaizing religious pictures of Ingres’s favorite disciple, Hyppolite Flandrin, are often more convincing—if one can grant his premise, so widely held since the French Revolution, that sacred art should turn its back on current style. M. Picon lays more stress on Ingres’s inability to record psychology and narrative—“Ingres seems lost every time something happens, something that ruffles the faces turned towards each other, or towards us”—and it is certainly true that his most satisfying masterpieces are either of single figures or of groups in which the individuals are isolated in some calm and solitary world of their own.

Both explanations are subtle and convincing; they help us to understand the nature of Ingres’s art; but they surely miss one relevant point: Ingres was not alone in his time in being unable to paint historical or religious scenes in a manner that carries complete conviction. His failure was shared by many other artists of the first half of the nineteenth century who, although they were much lesser artists than he, were yet capable of admirable work. Has any other period ever seen a greater number of gifted draughtsmen and painters—Couture, Tassaert, Granet, and many more—who were quite unable to achieve the serious historical masterpieces that their talents in other fields led them, and their admirers, to expect? It is a paradox that the Romantic era, which teemed with artists dreaming of Ossian and Shakespeare and Byron and medieval chroniclers, saw so much excellent portraiture and small-scale nudes and sketches inspired by sensitive observation, and so little persuasive fantasy. Delacroix? The exception must be granted, but even he produced his share of fancy dress charades.

It is hard not to feel that the very nature of what Ingres and his contemporaries were attempting laid almost insuperable obstacles in their way; and there are even moments when one can scarcely refrain from yielding to the absurd regret that the “realistic” movement in art did not dawn at the beginning, instead of toward the middle of the nineteenth century. To account for the long delay and to see what happened, one has to turn again to Professor Rosenblum (whose two books under review surely entitle him to some reward as “art historian of the year”—his photograph on the cover of the next Art Bulletin, perhaps?). For his Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art, which makes the most valuable contribution to our knowledge of French neoclassical painting since Locquin’s classic La peinture d’histoire en France of 1912, is largely concerned with the changing role of subject matter in European art during the very years that Ingres was coming to maturity.

Professor Rosenblum analyzes with many illustrations (which are much too perfunctorily reproduced for a book of this novelty and importance) the themes that preoccupied painters during the last two decades of the eighteenth century: fortitude and constancy in the face of adversity, patriotism, humanity, and so on. Few of these were wholly new in conception, but the sources from which the artists drew were often quite new to painting. In the search for virtuous wives and stoical husbands, foreign lands and foreign literatures were relentlessly pillaged. In 1764 the Venetian writer Francesco Algarotti had drawn up a brief list of essential books for aspiring painters: the Bible, Greek and Roman legend, the poems of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and the great Italians, Ripa’s Iconology, and a few Lives of the Painters. Now, only a generation later, the Warburg Institute itself would hardly have been ample enough to satisfy their thirst for arcane knowledge.


THOUGH A FEW of these themes lived on well into the nineteenth century, most of them quickly vanished from the repertory: their effect was nonetheless of the greatest importance because they gave a quite new significance to subject matter as a whole—a significance it had scarcely enjoyed since the early Renaissance. And at the same time far greater stress than ever before was laid on the historical accuracy with which scenes from the past were to be interpreted. Even the smaller genre pictures illustrating episodes from medieval and later history, which are so often attributed by scholars merely to a capricious straining after novelty, were in many cases the result of a serious attempt to reconstruct a new iconography in place of the widely discredited mythologies which had attracted the attention of eighteenth-century artists. The life of Henri IV or of Tasso was, in the eyes of many serious critics and artists, of far greater relevance than the loves of Jupiter, or even the deeds of Alexander the Great, and a start in this direction had been made well before the collapse of the ancien régime. Indeed the more the themes painted by the early Romantics are investigated, the more it appears that many artists turned for topical parallels to medieval and Renaissance history in somewhat the same way as David or Guerin had looked to the classics. It was the coronation of Napoleon and not, as is often suggested, the return of the Bourbons that first stimulated an interest in Charlemagne, François I, and Henri IV, and the actual episodes chosen for representation—then and later—would repay much more serious study than they have yet received. Thus Ingres’s Henri IV Playing With His Children of 1817 (recently rediscovered and shown in the Rome exhibition) makes as much comment about early nineteenth-century hopes for the nature of the restored monarchy as does any neoclassical Cincinnatus about the Republic—though admittedly it was not until the succession of Louis-Philippe that such hopes were to be fulfilled.

History, like mythology, could be trivialized, but Ingres was certainly not the only artist of the day who cared passionately about the nature of his subject matter. The little pictures of Raphael and the Fornarina and The Betrothal of Raphael (intended to be part of a far larger series) were seen by him as acts of reverential homage to the painter whom he admired above all others—indeed, the neo-classical theorist Quatremère de Quincy went out of his way to commend such themes; and Ingres at one time projected a similar set to deal with the life of Poussin; the drawing of Homer Deified (which was deliberately excluded from the Paris exhibition) occupied his passionate attention for many years until almost the end of his life—and led him, incidentally, to substitute for Shakespeare in the first version Flaxman in the second as the only Englishman worthy to be included among his heroes; and he never completed a commissioned picture of the Duke of Alba because he found the Duke so unsympathetic a character. Whatever his innermost religious feelings—or lack of them—it is clear that he was no less inspired by most of his sacred pictures. The same can be said of many of his fellow artists whose attempts to give adequate pictorial expression to their aspiration seem to us to be so unconvincing.

It was the styles adopted by these painters which usually betrayed them, for, as Professor Rosenblum convincingly demonstrates, they had a great many at their disposal which they were able to choose as self-consciously as any architect toying with the classical or the Gothic. Ingres spoke of himself—and his keenest contemporary admirers agreed with him—as a realist (“la seule expression qui lui convienne est l’expression toute récente de réaliste,” wrote his pupil Amaury Duval in 1878) and as an upholder of the great classical tradition. Walking around the Paris exhibition one increasingly came to understand and to find more perceptive those hostile critics who found something “Gothic” and almost perverse in his vision; and one also increasingly came to think that his true genius—at least as far as the figurative pictures were concerned—lay in that direction. This is not to adopt the position of those who have claimed him as the ancestor of surrealism, but merely to acknowledge that the plagiarisms which so often deaden his work were far less in evidence when he took as his point of departure relatively unknown Gothic or Mannerist prototypes. None of the pictures listed at the beginning of this review owes any serious debt to Raphael or to realism, and indeed the whole nature of his relationship to that master should perhaps be called in question.

SHOULD NOT his own stridently expressed devotion put us on our guard? Is there not something forced, almost hysterical about it, as of a man who seeks to convince himself as well as others? For all his obvious study of the originals, did he not see him partly at least through the eyes of seventeenth-century artists such as Guido Reni or Domenichino? Their influence seems present in works such as The Martyrdom of St. Symphorian or even the Joan of Arc. In this connection it is a pity that the exhibition in Rome did not include any of his copies of the Old Masters, for these might well have been revealing. One of his earliest biographers, Henri Delaborde, says that a list of all his copies after “les maîtres des différentes écoles” would be “démeusurément longue,” but Wildenstein’s catalogue raisonné includes only a few—after Raphael and Poussin, as we would expect. The exhibition at the Villa Medici, where he lived so long, would have provided a wonderful opportunity for trying to throw some new light on his tastes.

But it must be said at once that all three catalogues under review are of excellent quality and will be essential tools for the study and appreciation of this enigmatic artist. If too much stress has here been laid on his comparative failures, the reason is in part perhaps the difficulty of expressing anything other than the most conventional and enthusiastic admiration for his triumphs. Professor Rosenblum, however, avoids the clichés (of observation and diction alike) with enviable ease, and his well-illustrated monograph covers so wide a range and is so perceptive in its analyses of each work, so stimulating in its juxtapositions, and so persuasive in its commendations, that long familiar pictures take on a new and fresher life, while others less easily approachable reveal hitherto unsuspected beauties. His text is relatively short, and there are many questions that he does not ask, but as an essay in the interpretation of an artist’s style this book must rank with the rare masterpieces of the genre. In such company it would be easy, but most unfair, to overlook M. Picon’s contribution to a series that has been of uneven quality. His comments are always appreciative, and often illuminating, even if at some points not quite convincing. A centenary is well worth celebrating if it is done with the sense and sensibility that have been devoted to Ingres during these last two years.

This Issue

July 11, 1968