“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 noticed this had put his finger on something.)

It seems that the nearest thing to a caricature by Ingres to have survived is the sketch called “The Journalist,” but there are many portraits, both in pencil and in oil, of which one can say that they derive a part of their force from the resources of caricature. It is not that they are malicious (although there are those who see visceral dislike lurking behind his portrayals of the English in Rome) or mocking. Nor is it manifest only through the facial features. Often the extra charge that has been given to the line expresses itself in the pose of the figure: the elevated nobility of the Duc d’Orléans, the swagger of the Fogg Museum’s Count Apponyi, the elegance of Dr. Louis Martinet. Pose, it is well known, gave Ingres the key to the character of Louis-François Bertin. Hitherto his numerous sittings for the portrait had driven Ingres to tears. Once he established that the hands should be clamped onto the knees, as if Monsieur Bertin were in earnest and animated argument, everything else followed. The portrait says: Here is Monsieur Bertin—he is formidable in debate.

In the days described by Delécluze, when he and Ingres studied under David, the revolutionary week consisted of ten days. In the life class, one posed the model nude for the first six days, then there were three days devoted to portraiture, and on the tenth day one rested. Often the students posed for each other, and there has survived a copy of a student drawing of Ingres posing in the nude, short and somewhat stout, but striding vigorously forward holding an elegant bow. (See illustration on page 26.) Paris at the time was in the grip of a passion for all things Greek, which included a fad for nude swimming in the Seine. But a willingness to strip in order to further the cause of art stayed with him in later life. He posed nude as the Virgin Mary for his own painting The Vow of Louis XIII, persuading a friend to sketch him as he worked out the position of the legs. Around the year 1840, when Ingres was nearly sixty, he was painting Antiochus and Stratonice, and trying to work out how the drapery should fall on the grieving figure of Seleucus. Once again, the effort of conception had driven him to tears. Now he tossed the drapery over his shoulders and began running around the room in a state of undress before throwing himself, panting, onto a mattress. The purpose of this was to give his assistants an idea of the drapery, which, according to a contemporary account,


he wanted to be as natural as it was noble, as expressive as it was beautiful. And what naive good faith in this little man, obese and squat, who, without fear of appearing comic, without even suspecting the possibility, was penetrated by the passions he had to paint, to the point of miming the despair of an ancient hero, and risked ridicule to attain, if possible, supreme beauty.

Every artist is entitled to his own method of work, his own way of getting started. If Ingres needed to work himself up to the point of bursting into tears, if he had to take off his clothes and run around the room, if he had to enter grief in order to depict it, one can hardly quarrel with him. But it seems worth asking the question whether a given artistic procedure is functional (before painting the picture I must prime the canvas, before drawing the building I must learn perspective) or purely totemistic (before entering the studio I must see three black cats) or somewhere between the two. Ingres’s nudism (that is, his need to know what the nude figure would look like before he painted the clothed one) derives from that of David, which in turn derives from an academic tradition that has its origins in the Renaissance. But at any point in this tradition the procedures followed by artists will have been markedly different from those of their predecessors. Each successive nudism will have its own odd character.

Alberti says in his De Pictura that, when painting living creatures, it will help to sketch the bones first, then add sinews and muscle before finally clothing the body with flesh and skin. Anticipating the objection that “the painter is not concerned with things that are not visible,” Alberti says, “Just as for a clothed figure we have first to draw the naked body beneath and then cover it with clothes, so in painting a nude the bones and muscles must be arranged first, and then covered with appropriate flesh and skin in such a way that it is not difficult to perceive the positions of the muscles.”2 We know that many Renaissance artists went to great lengths to study anatomy, but how many paintings of the period, when X-rayed, turn out to have been painted in the manner recommended by Alberti?

Ingres loved the nude but he hated anatomy, as he hated looking at anything ugly (in Rome, when they passed a beggar who was covered with sores, his wife used to have to put her shawl over Ingres’s head, to shield him from the view). He said that if he had studied anatomy he would never have become an artist. When his students, in some Albertian enthusiasm, invested in a skeleton, Ingres refused to go anywhere near it and in the end announced that he would no longer visit the atelier while the skeleton remained. Degas quoted Ingres as saying: “The muscles are my good friends but I have forgotten their names.”

When I look at the drawings of Raphael, I come away at least with the illusion that the procedures the artist followed were functional rather than totemistic. The study of the nude figure seems an appropriate prelude to the painting of draped figures of the kind that Raphael ended up with—figures of a convincing solidity, as well as beauty of proportion and pose. But when I turn to the drawings of David, I am soon puzzled. In the remarkable sketchbooks in the Fogg Museum, David prepares for a painting of the coronation of Napoleon by drawing nude studies of the participants—Pope Paul VII, Cardinal Caprara, Napoleon himself. Clearly none of these busy men took time off to pose nude for the artist. In the case of the Pope and the cardinal, David made sketches from life of their clothed figures. Then in the studio he used a body double to check that the figures he had already drawn were anatomically possible. In such a case he is working in the opposite direction from Alberti, uncovering the figure rather than clothing it as he proceeds. Is this functionally necessary, or is it totemistic nudism?


When preparing for his painting The Tennis Court Oath, David made a compositional study (also in the Fogg) in which the figures are first sketched in as ideal nudes, like little classical statues, and then inked in in full contemporary dress (the nude figures being erased). This study is preparatory to a finished drawing in the Louvre, which shows the scene as it was meant to look in the eventual painting. But when it came to transferring this scene to canvas, David once again sketched the figures in the nude. While all this stripping and clothing and stripping and clothing was going on, many of the actual figures who had sworn the Tennis Court Oath had fallen to the guillotine (as a result of the efforts of David’s political allies). The canvas lost its original impulse and was never completed.

Ingres himself left so many drawings that we can follow his procedures over many years in many different genres. In some preparatory sketches (as in the striking studies for The Martyrdom of Saint Symphorian), one sees him operating much in the spirit of Raphael. In others, one is baffled that he should have needed a nude study at all, excepting in that totemistic sense that he needed to draw from the nude, hop around the room, see three black cats, and burst into tears before he could approach the easel.

Why, for instance, would Ingres have needed a nude study for a figure destined to be clad in full armor (as with Saint Joan, or the figure of Roger on the Hippogriff)? One wonders how many artists other than Ingres would begin with nude studies when designing a stained-glass window for a church. Ingres made a series of cartoons of saints and theological virtues for the chapel of St. Ferdinand in Paris, which marks the spot where the Duc d’Orléans met with his fatal carriage accident. The windows were to be executed by the Sèvres factory, and the commission had to be executed in a hurry. Yet Ingres began by drawing from the live model, before clothing his figures and giving some of them the features of members of the Orléans family. The chapel still exists, its decorative ensemble perfectly intact, just on the edge of the périphérique, a short walk from the Arc de Triomphe. The total effect is of stylistic improbability: it is an essay in Romanesque revival, with liberal quotations from Raphael. Pious Orléanists still pray there before the statue of the fallen duke.

The artists of the Renaissance were often obliged to work with male models to create female figures. Ingres disliked male models. He once said: “You know very well that I never pose men. They are ugly and stupid, they smoke, chew tobacco, and stink worse than an Abruzzi goatherd.” (A terribly unfair remark, since they most probably were Abruzzi goatherds.) Of course Ingres did pose men, but he also, on occasion, reversed the Renaissance procedure and posed women as men. For his Christ Among the Doctors, he had young women posing as old doctors. For Raphael and La Fornarina he posed a nude female model as Raphael, and then contrived to turn the sitter around and pose her as La Fornarina, sitting on her own (Raphael’s) knee.

A striking feature of Ingres’s preparatory studies (and of the oil sketches that followed them) is that Ingres often takes the trouble to include details which could never reach the final composition. The men have their own genitals, rather than the tastefully etiolated versions demanded by the conventions of the day. The women have their pubic hair, and if, say, their breasts are asymmetrical, that fact is recorded. Ingres had a mantra that his practice was to copy slavishly from nature, and he was not entirely deceiving himself when it came to the early stages of a composition. He did not have an ideal, neoclassical body imprinted on the brain. He went back devotedly, again and again, to the actual individual body. But he had an analytic hand which, at each new start in his researches, was constantly going in search of a geometry of beauty, not because he wanted to flatter his sitters (I don’t see him as a flatterer) but because each finished work from his hand had to contain some new proposal about the nature of beauty. This analytic, this abstracting hand—this hand knew something that the brain could not know. It had its own inexorable will to power.

One day in the studio the painter Jean-Pierre Granger complimented Ingres on his Oedipus. “I recognize the model,” Granger said. “Ah!” said Ingres, “is that so? Is it really like him?” “Yes, but you’ve made him far, far more beautiful.” “What? Made him more beautiful? I’ve just copied him, copied him slavishly.” “As you please, but he was never as beautiful as that.” This was the perfect way to exasperate Ingres, since it was tantamount to accusing him of not following his own doctrines. “But look,” Ingres replied, “since you remember him, it must be his portrait…” “Idealized,” said Granger. “Indeed,” said Ingres, “well, think what you like; but my ambition is to copy my model, to be his very humble servant, and I do not idealize.” “Idealized or not,” said Granger, “it’s very beautiful.” For he knew how to needle, and he also knew when to let matters rest.3


Ingres had two chief modes of drawing, and they are quite distinct. In the first he is talking only to himself—or to himself and a few trusted assistants (for his students were not usually allowed to see him at work; he would visit them in their studio). In this mode he is looking for outlines, looking for pose, and he doesn’t in the least mind making fundamental changes of contour, or giving a figure multiple limbs, because he is working on the assumption that none of this will be seen by the public. Nothing unfinished was ever to go on display.

In the second mode, Ingres drew portraits which were either to be sold or to be given to friends, and here the technique is one of extreme precision. Generally speaking there are no visible changes of mind, no building up of layer upon layer of work. Ingres drew these portraits in graphite (which is sometimes confusingly called black lead) at a time when the graphite pencil was being developed from something rather crude into an instrument that offered the possibility of great discrimination and control. The graphite was mixed with clay in varying quantities to give varying degrees of hardness. Just as Degas, decades later, was putting the new brands of pastel through their paces, so in the early part of the nineteenth century Ingres and his followers were exploiting not a new medium, but a newly responsive one.

Georges Vigne, in his monograph on the artist, asks rhetorically whether Ingres was the inventor of the drawn portrait. The answer is, certainly not. Practically every school of European art had already thrown up masters in the genre—Holbein, Clouet, Dürer, Van Dyck. In seventeenth-century Rome there was a particularly prolific artist, Ottavio Leoni, who left us the drawn likenesses of numerous contemporaries. And this is what Ingres did for early-nineteenth-century Rome, Florence, and Paris—the three cities in which he worked for any length of time—but with this difference, that the Italians generally speaking did not sit for Ingres, either as customers or as friends. Ingres drew the foreign society of Rome and Florence, and his personal milieu included not only artists but many of the celebrated musicians of the day.

It amounts to a remarkable gallery, but it is not a gallery that Ingres himself would ever have seen. He could never even have mounted a show of these drawn portraits, because he never had them in his hands for long enough. Each typically took four hours—a day’s—work. One and a half hours in the morning, then a pause for lunch during which Ingres often found the key to the pose, the sitter being more relaxed. A further two and a half hours were enough to complete the job. My impression is that Ingres must have thrown away his preliminary sketches, the pre-lunch work, but we can tell what it would have looked like from a drawing which was not shown in the London exhibition but will be in Washington only, a spontaneous sketch of his wife sewing by lamplight. Here Ingres has concentrated on the face, while indicating the dress in the swiftest, most vivid strokes. With the fingers he hasn’t bothered at all—they are indicated by crude parallel lines—and it is this casualness over an important area of the composition (the sitter is after all concentrating on her hands and what they contain) which tells us that this is not to be thought of as a finished work of art. This is for family eyes only.

Aileen Ribeiro, in her study Ingres in Fashion, says that in the drawn portraits “often the heads are given extra attention, a natural emphasis in a portrait likeness drawn in a limited time.” But this is an absurd formulation. The likeness was what the sitters came for, and this is what Ingres draws the viewer’s eye to, giving it the most detailed, delicate attention in its shading. But there is no hurry over the drapery—it is meticulously achieved. In a triple portrait of three English sitters, each costume is differentiated with beautiful precision.

The likeness is what matters to the sitters. These portraits were taken and framed with only the narrowest of mounts, so that they were of a size to display on a table or other piece of furniture, in exactly the same way that later generations would display framed photographs around the house. The portraits of Victor Baltard and his wife, which have spent many years apart, still share the same style of frame, which must therefore be original. One drawing has been cleaned, the other not, and in this case the yellowing of the paper does nothing to detract from the beauty of the portrait. Hans Naef, who made the definitive five-volume study of Ingres’s portrait drawings,4 was extremely critical of the way some of them have been restored and bleached. The temptation to intervene has often been increased by the fact that the drawings were pasted onto backings and have since shrunk, creating creases and tensions and the possibility of splitting. Sometimes they have then been cut off their backings, thereby reduced in size and sometimes losing their signatures and dates.

Naef’s catalog features some 450 items, many of which have disappeared, but it is utterly unclear how many of these portraits Ingres drew in total. Ingres won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1801, but couldn’t take up his trip to Italy until 1806. He finished his term at the Villa Medici in 1810, and it was in the next decade that he seems to have done most of the commissioned drawn portraits. One source refers to “these portraits in pencil which the boys in the Piazza di Spagna procured for him, at 15 to 20 francs each, including a tip for them.” Whether he really relied on street urchins to secure his commissions, he certainly associated this kind of work with the hard times he had been through. But it is not the case that he disliked the drawing of portraits as such. In later life, he was perfectly happy to draw his friends.

Still, it is clear that few of his sitters in those early days would have given much thought to the identity of the artist they had sat for, and that many of the pencil portraits may thus have perished through neglect. When the English art historian Brinsley Ford, in the 1930s, wanted to trace Ingres’s portraits of British sitters, he placed an advertisement in the London Times, which produced a response from owners of such items who had no idea of their artistic interest.

When Naef began his research into the identity of Ingres’s sitters, he found that many of them had lapsed into almost impenetrable obscurity. Of great interest to Byron lovers (and to historians of private life) is the portrait of Alexander Baillie, or “Long” Baillie, as Byron called him. This figure had been so overlooked by history that even Leslie Marchand’s edition of Byron’s letters (1973-1982) fails to give him his first name. Byron calls him “a very superior if not a supreme man.”

Baillie’s portrait had been listed under the name M. Alexandre Boyer by a previous scholar, and it was only when he recognized a bust by Thorvaldsen of the same sitter that Naef was able to ascertain his identity. The extraordinary face that Ingres has drawn (in one of those portraits that verge on caricature) belonged to an extremely tall man who had already, aged seven, sat for Gainsborough.

In 1806, ten years before Ingres drew him, Baillie had been on a trip to Jamaica when his ship rescued a group of shipwrecked travelers, among whom was a twenty-two-year-old Norwegian man, seven years younger than Baillie, called JÌürgen von Capellen Knudtzon. The two men fell in love and spent the rest of their lives together, traveling around Europe, meeting interesting people like Napoleon and Thorvaldsen, and improving their minds by immersing themselves in the finest literature. Strikingly, although Byron calls Baillie “a very clever man, but odd,” he never in his letters mentions his singular life story. He must have known about it, as must others of Byron’s circle. But somehow Baillie negotiated privacy and respect. Here is a story (taken from Thomas Moore’s life of Byron) that has its origins in the memory of Baillie. Byron, we are told, was accompanied some time in 1812 by two old schoolfellows, “Mr. Bailey” and John Madocks:

They went together with some assembly, and, on their arriving on the spot, about three o’clock in the morning, not finding the house that was to receive them open, Mr. Madocks undertook to arouse the inmates, while Lord Byron and Mr. Bailey, sauntered, arm in arm, up the street. During this interval, rather a painful scene occurred. Seeing an unfortunate woman on the steps of a door, Lord Byron, with some expression of compassion, offered her a few shillings; but, instead of accepting them, she violently pushed away his hand, and, starting up with a yell of laughter, began to mimic the lameness of his gait. He did not utter a word; but, “I could feel,” said Mr. Bailey, “his arm trembling within mine, as we left her.”

How much more poignantly that intimate moment—Byron trembling at the mockery of the destitute—strikes us once we know the facts that Naef unearthed about Baillie, and when we have Ingres’s strange portrait in front of us.

In the catalog accompanying the current Ingres show, which opens this month at the National Gallery in Washington, we are given a condensed version of Naef’s researches on the drawings, whereas in the original version—an astonishing piece of scholarship—he shared with the reader every step in the detective work. In the case of the Louvre’s beautiful and intriguing drawing known as Barbara Bansi, the abridgement of the original research has the effect of distracting attention from the large number of difficulties in interpreting the portrait. (See illustration on page 21.) A woman is sitting on a carved stone bench, with a metal railing behind her, as if on some elevated spot above a city. To her right, a parachute is falling, while a hot air balloon careers out of control. The woman has a spyglass in her hand and an eighteenth-century Indian cashmere shawl around her shoulders. Naef says the city must surely be Rome, for there is an umbrella pine among the rooftops. But the drawing is signed “jngres. eleve de David,” which implies for some scholars that it was executed before 1801, when Ingres won the Prix de Rome. It was therefore drawn in Paris.

A translator’s note in the catalog tells us that there was only one demonstration of the parachute in Paris at the turn of the century. On October 22, 1797, André-Jacques Garnerin went up in a hot air balloon above the Parc Monceau, and then descended by parachute. The balloon then rose rapidly until it burst. The translator goes on to say that “it is easy to imagine the two young artists [Ingres and Barbara Bansi] deciding to make a day of it, arming themselves with a spyglass and drawing materials, and setting off for some height—most probably Montmartre—from which they could look out over the Parc Monceau.” The translator imagines that the drawing is executed at the time of Garnerin’s demonstration, and that “being able to sign himself as a student of David would have been something still quite new to him and a source of pride.”

The translator has forgotten one thing (as the early detectives used to say): he has forgotten the cashmere shawl. According to Madeleine Delpierre, these shawls were first brought back by Bonaparte’s soldiers after the Egyptian campaign (May 1798-July 1799). In the East they were normally items of male attire, and at first the women of Paris did not know what to do with them, beautiful though they clearly were. It was Josephine Bonaparte and her friends who had the bright idea of draping them around their shoulders, and so the craze began. Bonaparte himself tried to put a stop to it by banning the import of cashmere shawls in 1806.5

The location Ingres chose in Rome has never been identified, and there is good reason to suppose that it is imaginary, or a composite view taken from a drawing or engraving. The bench or parapet on which the young woman sits is fronted by a stone relief depicting winged monsters with fishtails, partly obscured by the sitter’s dress. Aileen Ribeiro, in a wild moment, calls this an Assyrian relief, but this kind of grotesque is well within the European tradition. At the time Naef believes Ingres drew Barbara Bansi, he was also at work on a profile drawing of the violinist Jean Baptiste Cartier, which he drew, uniquely, on a proof copy of the title page of Cartier’s L’Art du Violon (1798)—an engraving signed by the architect Francisque Debret. The engraving consists of an elaborate border featuring medallions of celebrated musicians and fictive classical reliefs, one of which shows two winged monsters extremely similar to, although not identical with, the relief in the portrait of Barbara Bansi.6

If Ingres put together the whole scene from disparate elements, imagining what Rome would be like, and if the sitter is a young artist whose ambition was indeed to go to Rome, what then could possibly be the significance of the hot air balloon and the parachute? Surely it must be a reference to some private joke, some private understanding between the artist and his subject. As if Ingres had exclaimed one day: I will succeed, I will get to Rome. And his friend had replied: I’m sure you will, I’m sure you will astonish us all—I shall look up at the sky and see you descending on the city, like Monsieur Garnerin and his parachute.


Nobody who had come to study in Paris at the time that Ingres did could have been unaware that David, still the leading painter of his country, had had a narrow escape. He had sought power by aligning himself with the most extreme elements of the Revolution, and he had all but lost his head along with Robespierre. Now he was a chastened man, conciliatory to those he would once have hounded. His students were able to make the distinction between the artist they deeply admired and the frightening figure he had so recently been.

Ingres looked at David and thought: what he was, I will be; if there is danger in this, I must accept the danger; if the supreme artist must take his place at the right hand of supreme power, that is where I must take my place, that is my rightful heritage. His fellow students saw that Ingres did not like losing at dominoes. A later critic wrote of him: “This rare man, so interesting in the sincerity of his despotism, could not live under the hypothesis of a rival…. He wants to be alone, and the first, or not to exist at all.”7

His fellow students were driven wild by the pursuit of the primitive. They learned Greek and communed with the spirit of Homer. They drenched themselves in Ossian. When they turned to the Bible it was in search of primitive literature. They desired the archaic, but they did not know where to look for it, unless it were in the graphic style of the vase paintings, or in Flaxman’s illustrations to Homer. Nothing much came from this generation of “primitives.” Some went mad, some died young, one went to Greece and perished in the massacre at Chios, others gave up on their ambitions and ideals.

Ingres had kept his distance from their extremism, but like them he speculated that there might be another, radically different, way of painting. Or rather that there might, in art, be more than one way to skin a cat. Ingres has been usefully compared to the eclectic architects of his day who would happily turn from an Egyptian style for a cemetery to a Greek for a museum to French Renaissance for a town hall.8 It is easy to hold this against them, as a mark of a lack of commitment; they could turn their hand to Gothic, but they were not committed to Gothic as the single supreme style. Ingres was like that: the stained glass he designed for the chapel of St. Ferdinand, where it fitted a Romanesque shape, was reused at Dreux, where it adapted perfectly to a Gothic format.

Ingres made forays into the primitive: Venus Wounded by Diomedes and Jupiter and Thetis are attempts to harness the spirit of Flaxman and the Greek vases. The Dream of Ossian is a shot at painting Ossianically (whatever that might mean). And the Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne is the most ambitious of all—an essay in the primitivism of the north. (See illustration on page 24.) Degas said that a picture is something that requires as much trickery, malice, and vice as the perpetration of a crime, and there was something in this picture which made the public recoil as from an act of barbarity. To the spectator of today, the portrait is an icon of Empire, but to the Empire public it seemed Gothic, barbarous, an attempt to turn back the clock on all the progress art had made, to paint in the manner of the Flemish primitives.

Like a good eclectic, Ingres always suited the style to the purpose, and if he chose a Gothic style (meaning Gothic as a term to cover anything from Byzantine to the fifteenth century) it was to underline the point made by the iconography: Napoleon less as Jupiter (although the echoes are there) than as Charlemagne. The source for the pose of Napoleon, seated and with his right hand held high up the scepter of Charles V, is to be found at the tip of the scepter itself, in the gold figure of Charlemagne—the figure chosen by Charles V to reinforce his own claim to legitimacy, and that of his heir, at whose coronation it was used (as it was at the coronation of every subsequent king of France bar two).9

The comparison of Napoleon with Charlemagne had been made as early as 1800 in a painting by David (which also compares him to Hannibal), and it was by no means out of date in 1806 as the catalog states, because in 1812 Baron Gros was commissioned to decorate the dome of the Pantheon with Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, surrounded by Clovis, the first king of the Franks, Charlemagne, Saint Louis, and Napoleon. As Francis Haskell tells us,

After Elba, Gros was summoned by the royal minister and told that Louis XVIII was to be substituted for Napoleon. Came the Hundred Days and Napoleon found time to countermand the order, and the wretched Gros set to work again, only to have it near completion at about the time of Waterloo, after which once again Louis XVIII had to be reinserted.10

As Haskell points out, nobody had bothered much, in the eighteenth century, to find out what a figure such as Clovis or Charlemagne would have actually looked like, in preparation for painting them. The Charlemagne Baron Gros painted on the Pantheon cupola looks like an angry old man out of Michelangelo. Compared with this, Ingres’s Napoleon-as-Charlemagne is radical in its medievalism. It proposed a new school of art, with Ingres at its head. It proclaimed the full implications of Napoleon’s assumption of throne and scepter. It accepted absolutely the most exorbitant ambitions of the Emperor.

And it failed. It failed with critics and public, in part, because it reminded them of what they least liked about Napoleon: unable to criticize the monarch, they turned on the painting as a substitute. It failed to win the approval of Napoleon, which it had so blatantly sought. And it failed in its most disagreeable, covert purpose—to dislodge David from his anyway faltering preeminence.

When Ingres became aware of his failure, he was already in Rome, having finally been able to take up his scholarship at the Villa Medici. So public a failure overwhelmed him—he felt his honor had been impugned in Paris, and it would be impossible to return to France without first redeeming himself. And as Philip Conisbee points out in the catalog, Ingres’s mortification was such that he never requested the portrait for any of his retrospective shows. It took him eighteen years to paint his way back to Paris and public favor.


In 1985, the Louvre put together an exhibition of Ingres portraits, drawing on French national collections: seventeen of the sixty-odd portraits painted by Ingres belonged by then to the French state; the rest of the show was devoted to drawn portraits and a strong selection of sketches, including studies for the stained-glass windows. About a quarter of the exhibits came in the form of photographs.

In the current show, which the Louvre declined to mount and which therefore has the unusual luxury of two American stopovers, around fifty of the oil paintings are to be seen—an astonishing percentage of the painter’s work in the genre. The size of the exhibition in London was as usual determined by the modesty of the space available, and as usual those modest galleries made for a comprehensible and satisfying show. I could have imagined seeing more of the preparatory sketches, and perhaps a section devoted to the work of Ingres’s pupils, but one could hardly say that anything preeminent was missing, apart from the portraits of Philibert Rivière and his daughter (Madame Philibert Rivière was only to be seen in London). The six-hundred-page catalog edited by Gary Tinterow and Philip Conisbee has a wealth of secondary illustrations, and enough text to keep the mind from malnourishment.

One does not, of course, see Ingres whole in this exhibition, and at the time of the London opening people were talking of the need, one day, to mount a grand retrospective. But I wonder how many people would like Ingres better after seeing him whole, how many appetites there would be for every single course on the menu. He revered Raphael (to the extent of requesting from the Pope, and receiving, a small piece of one of Raphael’s ribs) and was yet, in his grand Napoleon portrait, the first French Pre-Raphaelite. His contributions to the genre called troubadour painting (small-scale scenes drawn from French or Italian history) are amusing in ways he would never have intended, and his religious works display some unpleasing tricks, as when a pair of eyes turns upward toward heaven, like a couple of hard-boiled eggs.

And yet one cannot pare Ingres away, or jettison the less easily assimilable parts of the whole. We would have Delacroix against us, who examined the Apotheosis of Homer and declared that he had never seen its peer in execution: “The handling is that of the masters; it’s done with nothing, and yet everything is there.” And we would have Degas against us, who at one time owned not only five of the oil portraits in the current show, but also oil sketches and drawings covering every aspect of Ingres’s work—over a hundred items. Plus 140 photographs of works by Ingres, and a plaster cast of the master’s hand, holding a pencil.

Degas, in an argument, delivered himself of the opinion that there were three great draftsmen of the nineteenth century: Ingres, Delacroix, and Daumier. Degas wanted to do the work completed by Georges Vigne only in 1995—he wanted to classify and publish all the Ingres studies in the Montauban Museum—and in 1897 he proposed an exchange of photographic materials from his archive and that of the city. Degas had studied for four years under a pupil of Ingres, Louis Lamothe, and he retained such a reverence that when, in 1911, the Galerie Georges Petit put on an Ingres retrospective, Degas, being blind, had to run his hands over the pictures. He told a friend: “I can make out something in the pictures I know, but nothing in those I don’t know.”

But Degas returned to the exhibition every day.

This Issue

May 20, 1999