The Zincsmith of Genius


by Georges Vigne
Abbeville, 352 pp., $95.00

“Degas would brook no discussion when it came to the question of Monsieur Ingres. To one who said that this great man made his figures out of zinc, he replied: ‘Perhaps!… But then, he’s a zinc-smith of genius [c’est un zingueur de génie].”‘

—Paul Valéry


On the northeast side of the Louvre, on the site of what later became the Marengo Wing, the students of Jacques-Louis David had their lodgings and their atelier. In 1797, when the young Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres came up to Paris to study under the master, he would have found an extremely sordid and gloomy complex of rooms, to enter which one had to pass a row of immense sinks that served as an open latrine. The air was putrid and still. According to a memoir by E.J. Delécluze, Ingres’s fellow student, it took nothing less than the iron will and power of Napoleon to cleanse these latter-day Augean stables and to make the Louvre a fitting monument for the nation.1

The subdivision of the enormous interior had been left largely to the artists themselves, and the walls were bare, except for paint stains. In the students’ atelier, the only decoration was a mass of caricatures, some of them quite old, stuck to the wall. Delécluze tells us that David attached some importance to these cartoons by his pupils. When a new student arrived, his likeness would be drawn and placed on the wall nearest the modeling stand, so that David would see it as he passed. The master would study the drawing and say either “It’s good” or “It’s bad.” If the former, he would inquire who had drawn it. If the latter, he would laugh ironically, provoking a chorus of whooping from the students, after which the offending caricature would normally be obliterated.

One is so used to the dry certainties of academic training—passing from the copying of engravings, to plaster casts, to life class—that this mention of caricature comes as a surprise. It reminds us that, while it is true that the predominant tone among David’s pupils was one of high-minded striving after the ideal, the atelier had its boisterous side. Ingres would have drawn caricatures in the course of his training. An album of caricatures by David’s pupils survives in a private collection. Among them there is apparently a drawing of Ingres “giving a hollow laugh after losing at a game of dominoes.”

When caricatures became popular in artistic circles in the seventeenth century they were known as ritrattini carichi or portraits chargés—charged portraits, although the term hardly translates well into English. It means that the portrait has an extra burden, an extra task to perform. It represents the sitter, and it tells us something extra about him which an ordinary portrait might not be expected to do: here is the cardinal—he is a pompous old fool; here is the new student Ingres—he is a bad loser. (And indeed Ingres was a bad loser. The fellow student who…

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