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Ingres, Reluctant Portraitist of an Era.

Although the great French painter held portrait work in low esteem, a touring exhibition demonstrates he created some of the most memorable likenesses in the history of art.

"What man has better painted the nineteenth century? The gallery of portraits by Ingres, begun in 1804 and completed in 1861, is that not the most faithful image of an epoch?"----Art critic Leon Lagrange, 1867

It is not often that one can see, within a single artist exhibition, several of the most extraordinary portraits ever painted. But that is the case with Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch, organized by the National Gallery in London (where it was seen earlier this year), the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (where it is on view through August 24), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (where it will be shown October 5--January 2, 2000). Comprised of about forty porutrait paintings--out of the fifty he created--and sixty drawings, it is the first to examine Ingres' likenesses in these two mediums and the most comprehensive presentation of his portraits ever seen in this country. A tremendous hit in London, the exhibition is causing a stir in America as well.

The vivid oil and sharply focused pencil portraits on view, from every period of Ingres' long career, effectively demonstrate why he is regarded as one of the greatest portrait painters and, in the words of National Gallery of Art director Earle Powell III, "one of the most brilliant draftsmen of all time." Quite an accomplishment for a painter whose ambition was to create historical and allegorical compositions and came to consider painted likenesses a chore and a "considerable waste of time." Driven by what he called "insatiable desire for glory," Ingres insisted he wanted to spend his time on grander themes-- mythologies, harem scenes, Bible narratives, and history subjects--and turned out numerous epical works in pursuit of that ambition.

Nonetheless, for more than six decades Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-- 1867) portrayed with unsurpassed precision and concentration some of the most powerful, creative, and wealthy personages of France. He was a virtuoso technician, and his gift for innovative composition and insightful poses--as well as his unrivaled ability to record dazzling clothes, jewelry, and hairstyles--made him one of the most sought-after portraitists of his day. His male likenesses are imposing; but even more stunning are his renditions of females garbed in all the delicious excesses of nineteenth-century fashion. The sheer artistry of his likenesses makes it clear why admiration for Ingres' work has continued unabated, inspiring such gifted painters as Matisse, Picasso, and especially Degas.

Rise to Fame

The last of the great French classicist painters, Ingres was born in the south of France, the son of a minor artist. He received art training from his father, then at an academy in Toulouse, and finally in the Paris studio of neoclassical titan Jacques-Louis David. Ingres' earliest portraits, painted while he was a student in Paris, are of family and friends. Freely brushed and intimate, they constitute exercises in developing the young artist's repertoire for more ambitious projects to come.

Two contrasting likenesses of Napoleon Bonaparte--as first consul (1804) and as emperor of France (1806)--represent Ingres' breakthroughs to official government commissions. They show the meticulous realism and high degree of idealization that were to characterize his work for the rest of his career.

His enormous (roughly 7 1/2 by 5 feet) Bonaparte as First Consul, sponsored by the minister of the interior to commemorate Bonaparte's visit to Liege and placed in its town hall, shows the young statesman pointing to a decree calling for reconstruction of a portion of the city, glimpsed through the window on the right. His visage shows determination and ambition, yet also a trace of idealism.

Even larger--at 8 1/2 by over 5 feet--is Ingres' eye-popping Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, a grandiose statement of the self-proclaimed emperor as absolute ruler, seated with godlike certainty on his throne and staring resolutely at his subjects. Gone is the idealism in the eyes of the first portrait; instead, a face sickened with the ruthless pursuit of power is surrounded by Byzantine opulence. The painting is both an intimidating image of absolute authority and a virtuoso display of skill in rendering velvet, fur, and gold.

The latter aspects, especially when viewed close up, are astoundingly detailed and still dazzle the eye nearly two centuries after they were painted. A kind of apotheosis of totalitarian sublime, this is surely one of the most extraordinary portraits in Western art, and it shows how Ingres could simultaneously meet the ideological or other demands of his clients while honestly portraying the inner character he beheld. The 26-year-old artist was keenly disappointed when, upon being displayed at the Paris Salon of 1806, his gargantuan composition was criticized as archaic and too like early Flemish painting such as the work of Jan van Eyck.

Nonetheless, Ingres was chosen to receive the prestigious Prix de Rome, and he departed later that year for an anticipated four-year sojourn in the Eternal City that extended to fourteen years. At the outset of his stay in the French- occupied city, he experimented with paintings of beautiful and coolly sensuous nudes, embodying concepts that later found their way into his female portraits.

Ingres' infatuation with the work of Raphael, the great painter of the High Renaissance, infused these works and those of the rest of his career. As poet Charles Baudelaire later observed, "Passionate lover of antiquity and its model, respectful servant of nature, he [Ingres] made portraits that rival Roman sculptures."

Two contrasting likenesses are high points of these early Roman years: the rather rigid, formal treatment of a high-ranking French government bureaucrat, Charles-Marie-Jean-Baptiste Marcotte (Marcotte d'Arqenteuil) (1810) and the romantic image of Ingres' painter-friend Francois-Marius Granet (1809), whose melancholy temperament is echoed by storm clouds threatening the skyline of Rome behind him. Marcotte's demeanor is cold and a bit mistrustful, his face betraying an inner insecurity beneath a mask of aristocratic reserve. Granet's face, however, is more open and friendly, with features indicating a passionate nature.

After Ingres' term at the French Academy ended in 1810, he stayed on in Rome for a decade, in part because he was not yet sure he could succeed in Paris and in part because he found ready patronage for his portraits in French occupation officials and their wives.

Ingres' most memorable renditions of women balance sensuality and detachment, and his first great portrait to do so was the 1814 painting of Madame de Senonnes, nee Marie-Genevieve-Marguerite Marcoz, later Vicomtesse de Senonnes. With swaths of rich color surrounding and throwing into highlight her face and ample bosom, he captures the languorous elegance of the beautiful, bejeweled, sumptuously garbed divorcee who had scandalized the Eternal City by taking up with the Vicomte do Senonnes. Her cool, alluring glance and the mirrored reflection of her back are so compelling that one hardly notices that the ovoid of her face seems rather too perfect and that her extended right arm appears inches longer than her folded left arm.

Actually, the artist deliberately lengthened the arms of women sitters to emphasize their sinuous looks and their elegant sleeves, and elongated their necks to add expressiveness. Although these anatomical distortions were employed in the cause of creating idealized images and capturing the provocative allure of his aristocratic women, they were often mocked by contemporary reviewers.

With so many sumptuous paintings on view, it is easy to overlook the exquisite craftsmanship of the sixty drawings that are interspersed throughout the exhibition. From the outset Ingres regarded drawing as crucial to achieving a purity of line and form without the decorative distortion of color, and throughout his life he drew portraits remarkable for their elegant, unforced poses and incisive precision.

Ingres' line was unerring, it seems. We are told that his immaculate pencil likenesses took only four hours to complete. His self-portrait of 1822 is one of those on view that suggest why these delicate little masterpieces are considered among the most refined and expert drawings anywhere. They are worth close study.

Ingres' production of portrait drawings increased after the collapse of Napoleon's empire in 1815, when he eked out a living for a time depicting British and other foreign visitors to the Eternal City who flooded in with the establishment of peace.

Leaving Rome in 1820, Ingres spent four years in Florence, where he immersed himself in study of Renaissance painting, especially the art of his hero, Raphael, whom he sought to emulate in monumental religious paintings. Hoping to succeed as a history painter, he devoted most of these four years to projects in that field.

Leading Neoclassicist

In 1824 Ingres returned to Paris. By that time his huge altarpiece for his hometown, Montauban, was an enormous critical success. He was promptly hailed as the leading artist of the Neoclassical school, which adhered to the ideal of classical perfection and the primacy of drawing, in contrast to the expression of emotions through color advocated by Eugene Delacroix and the rising Romantic movement. France's art establishment showered Ingres with honors and important commissions, and he did few portraits during the next few years.

A notable exception--and the highlight of the entire show--is his riveting likeness of Paris newspaper magnate Louis-Francois Bertin (1832). As preliminary drawings on view demonstrate, the artist had great trouble deciding how to pose the powerful publisher. He eventually adopted a strikingly expressive posture in which the imposing Bertin appears about to rise from his chair to confront the viewer. Startlingly immediate, this painting became an icon of the triumphant French middle class, a symbol of the economic and political ascendency of the bourgeoisie in the first half of the nineteenth century.

At the height of his fame, Ingres returned to Rome in 1835 and spent six years as director of the French Academy, which put him in a position to influence the next generation of painters. This task took so much of his time that he did not complete a single oil portrait during his tenure. He did, however, execute a number of empathetic portrait drawings, notably of fellow musicians--Ingres was an accomplished violinist--including Charles Gounod, Franz Liszt, and Niccola Paganini.

Although he proclaimed on his return in 1841 that "it is not to paint portraits that I came back to Paris," Ingres could not decline the commission to create the official likeness of the Duc d'Orleans, heir to the French throne, whom he presented as an erect, haughty, self-possessed aristocrat against a subtly elegant background. When the prince was killed in a carriage accident a few months after the portrait was completed in 1842, the king ordered Ingres and his students to paint numerous replicas. It became Ingres' best-known image during his lifetime.

Financially secure during the final quarter-century of his life, Ingres turned down many portrait requests, choosing to paint only sitters whose beauty or personality appealed to him. He was particularly attracted by opportunities to depict young women of charm and breeding. As his friend Beaudelaire wrote,

"Ingres is never so happy nor so powerful as when his genius comes to grips with the feminine charms of a young beauty. ... He applies himself to the slightest beauties with the keenness of a surgeon; he follows the lightest undulations of their outlines with the slavishness of a lover."

That description certainly fits his delicious painting of the vivacious and flirtatious Vicomtesse Othenin d'Haussonville (1845). The 27-year-old beauty, depicted in a sitting room of her Paris home, has apparently just attended or is about to attend the opera: Her opera glasses are on the opulent mantel, her evening bag hangs from the handle of a vase, and her cashmere shawl is thrown on a chair.

The saucy countess's pose, head tilted and index finger placed coyly at her jaw, suggests her admitted "taste for society, for flirtation, and for pleasure." The enigmatic charm of this image rests not only on the elusive gaze of the subject but on the exquisite realism in the depiction of the sheen of her satin dress and the still-life objects behind her--and the precise handling of her arms, neck, and head--along with their reflection in the mirror. As a family friend perceptively observed to the countess, "Monsieur Ingres must be in love with you to have painted you that way." The painter was then sixty-five.

Suitably famous among Ingres' late portraits are two versions of Madame Paul- Sigisbert Moitessier, one standing and one sitting, painted over a period of twelve years from 1844 to 1856. Married to a wealthy man twice her age who made a fortune importing Cuban cigars, the subject was shown in the first canvas standing, adorned with numerous jewels and pink flowers in her hair and wearing a handsome black ball gown, and fixing the viewer with a sad and strangely vacuous gaze.

Ingres had a much more difficult time finishing the lady's seated portrait, as numerous preparatory drawings show. The result was, as critic Robert Hughes has observed, Ingres' Mona Lisa.

Here her sullen gaze has taken on a subtle glint of knowing between herself and the artist, underscored by her enigmatic half-smile. Making her arms more slender in response to complaints they looked too plump in the standing version, Ingres presented Madame Moitessier in an opulent silk dress bursting with bouquets of roses rendered in colorful, precise detail. Her pose, inspired by that of the goddess of Arcadia in an ancient fresco Ingres had seen in Naples, accentuates her voluptuousness and the elegance of her clothes, which represent the height of Second Empire fashion. Behind her left shoulder is her dim reflection in a mirror, dominated by a meticulously rendered hair ornament; counterposing that extravagance, however, her profiled face barely emerges as a ghostly, mysterious, disturbingly soulless presence.

When Ingres completed his last likeness, a self-portrait, in 1865, the 85-year- old artist could look back on a six-decade career that spanned the closing years of the French Revolutionary era, the First Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Bourbon Restoration, and the Second Empire. Painting many of the most important and affluent figures of his time in piercingly exact portraits that convey a vivid picture of the society and luxurious fashions of the day, Ingres created "the most faithful image of an epoch"--and much more.

Stephen May is an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer based in Washington, D.C.
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Publication:World and I
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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