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The large miniatures of Ingres: 'Portraits by Ingres' at the National Gallery.

Donald Bruce

Like Gainsborough, Ingres became increasingly reluctant to paint portraits, and in the end accepted a sitter's commission only when frankly cornered by an influential patron. Then, with much labour, he did his immaculate best. He could draw a bewitching likeness in an hour or two, but paintings were not the same as that. Never satisfied, he endlessly reworked and retouched them, actually weeping when, in his exacting view, something went wrong. As Winckelmann, the critic who presided over NeoClassicism, advised, Ingres was fiery in inception but cautious in completion. His sitters needed patience. He spent twelve years on his portrait of Mme Moitessier in the London National Gallery. He made six extant studies, including a drawing of her in the nude for

which, naturally, a professional model stood in, although he pasted a drawing of Mme. Moitessier's eyes across the outline of the model's face, since the eyes were the crucial features in his portraits. That is not to say that his portraits were no more than similitudes. As the young and admiring Picasso discerned, 'Ingres drew like Ingres and not like the things he drew'. Ingres's painted figures, such as Angelica in his Ruggiero and Angelica, are often longer, narrower and more serpentine than the precise life-studies he made in preparation for them.

As Ingres wrote in 1813, it was quite impossible for him to paint portraits quickly in order to earn a ready profit. He added, 'Expression cannot be good if it has not been informed by absolute exactitude'. It is not surprising that in the self-portraits he executed for special occasions he looks increasingly irascible and tired. He completed the last of these at the age of seventy-eight, as if to signalise his release from portraiture. Five years later he achieved his supreme life-paintings in Le Bain Turc in the Louvre. His portraits were masterly; but Michelangelo himself begrudged his self-imposed toil in the Sistine Chapel, although he could see what marvels he had accomplished there. Ingres was happier with his portraits drawn in pencil, which liberated his deft and spontaneous sense of line. In the paintings derived from them he laboured to perfect and justify what had come to him instantaneously.

His portrait of his patron, the Duc d'Orleans, heir-apparent to King Louis-Philippe, concludes a series of dandies delineated as if straight out of the pages of Ingres's contemporary, Balzac: raffish provincials from his native Montauban, art-students from his years in Jacques-Louis David's studio; later on, patrons and dignitaries from the First Empire, the Bourbon Restoration and the ascendancy of Napoleon III. Most of them are closely buttoned into a bristling sequence of outer garments; armadillo-plated with pointed lapels (on waistcoats, under-jackets, topcoats and capes) and hugely cravatted.

They kept the cold out more resolutely than the ladies Ingres painted in their slipping corsages: the Vicomtesse de Senonnes, her slim, coiled energy temporarily arrested, her tense shoulders reflected in the looking-glass behind her, with Ingres's visiting card tucked into its frame (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes); Mme Moitessier, wife of a cigar-importer, standing with a chaplet of roses on her flighty head and a black dress, the elegance of which she has contrived to wreck with titivations of lace and gauze, on her heavy body, or (seated before a mirror) portly as a galleon with its parrot-gaudy sails distended in a streaming breeze (National Galleries, Washington and London); Mme Riviere, her bare arm as plump and velvety as the cushion it reposes on (Louvre).

More demure is Mme Baltard, sketched in pencil, her eyes sweetly uplifted under the braided, centre-parted hair fashionable at the time (Private Collection, Paris); and, demure beyond all demureness, delicate as the Sevres china on the glazed chimney-piece she leans against, the Vicomtesse d'Haussonville, youngest child of the Duc de Broglie and a descendant of Mme de Stael. The glass reflects the child-like tilt of her neck and her inquiring posture (Metropolitan Museum, New York). Her stance and her touching beauty merge her with Stratonice in Ingres's choice-hued Antiochus and Stratonice, painted for the Duc d'Orleans (Musee Conde, Chantilly). Ingres is said to have wept when he read in Valerius Maximus that the sight of Stratonice restored the sick Antiochus to health:

What wondrous powre beauty hath

That can restore a damned wight from death!

Ingres did not stop short at these scions and survivors of the French Revolution. He was born early enough to portray Napoleon both as first Consul and as Emperor. Ingres presents the First Consul at his tiny full length, a neo-classical chair at his side in a room with a high window overlooking the Walloon city of Liege; all, including Napoleon's cherry-flushed uniform, in the trim and delectable colouring of Ingres's scenes taken from poetry and historical anecdote: his 'large miniatures' as he called them. Napoleon gazes into the air, speculatively or introspectively, as if at a vision, probably of his own self-aggrandisement (Musee d'Armes, Liege).

Ingres's exact representation of classical artefacts, which persists in several of his portraits and portrait-drawings, dates from his time in David's studio, when he was allowed to paint the footstool and the incense-burner in David's picture of Mme Recamier. Ingres's earliest portraits imitate the medallions on Roman coins. His Lucien Bonaparte drapes his long legs over a Roman cinerarium, his Mlle Bansi prepares to watch a balloonist from a balcony in Montparnasse carved in bas-relief with sphinxes. In Ingres's version of him as Emperor, Napoleon wears a sword encased in a replica of an Ancient Roman scabbard.

Like his portrait of Napoleon as First Consul, Ingres's picture of Napoleon's sister, Caroline Murat, for a while Queen of Naples, comes close to his romantic tableaux (from classical antiquity, the Renaissance in Italy and France, and the seraglios of the Ottoman Empire). Her slight form is further diminished by the contrasting amplitude of her hat and the multicoloured expanse of the salon she occupies, with a view through the wide window of the Bay of Naples and Versuvius, ominously smoking.

Ingres, possibly with the unexpected (and unsuspected) irony which would later tinge his two portraits of Mme Moitessier, painted Napoleon on the Imperial Throne in something like the pose of Jupiter in his Jupiter and Thetis in the Musee Granet, Aix-en-Provence. The irony would have been partly at Napoleon's expense and partly directed at his master David's grandiloquent effigies of the Emperor: Ingres had just ended his sometimes rebellious stint of nine years in David's studio. Perhaps contemptuously, Ingres particularises the excess of pretentious ornament on the throne, dias and footstool, the totalitarian trappings and the cloak (each tuft of ermine with its own shadow) out of which Napoleon stares with the smooth, pucker-lipped plumpness of a cherub painted by Ingres's idol, Raphael (Les Invalides, Paris). If one is right in suspecting that there is a measure of scorn for Napoleon himself in this portrait, it would be consistent with the liberalism and loyalty to the line of Orleans which Ingres later revealed (to the extent that Louis-Philippe honoured him with a state banquet in 1841), as well as his distaste for the military government which prevented him from taking up the Prix de Rome he had been awarded five years earlier in 1801.

Early in his career he severely reduced, like a Clouet or a Hilliard, the use of shadow, which no doubt he regarded as a meretricious substitute for the distinct drawing he called the 'probity of art'. William Blake, though a less Apollonian figure, agreed. 'The more distinct, sharp and wiry the bounding line,' Blake wrote, 'the more perfect the work of art'. Both artists admired the engravings of Flaxman, which supported their contention. Ingres envisaged an arc of frontal light which eliminates the wrinkles and cavities of the face.

This effect is at its most remarkable in Ingres's portrait of Louis Francois Bertin, the editor, imprisoned under Napoleon, of the liberal newspaper Le Journal des Debats, which later helped to replace the repressive Bourbons with their constitutionalist Orleans collateral, Louis-Philippe, in 1830. In spite of his jowls, pouched cheeks and set mouth, his face is as tautly elastic as that of Raphael's Sistine Madonna, which inspired Ingres in his Vow of Louis XIII. From a mahogany armchair as solid as himself, Bertin makes a point or an appraisal as he leans forward on his burly fists, so unlike the fragile-boned hands of Ingres's women, which are as curvaceous as those of a late-Gothic demoiselle (Musee du Louvre). Ingres once asserted that drawing includes seven-eighths of painting. In spite of the verve and piquancy of his own palette, and the veracity with which it reproduced textures and materials, he regarded colour as merely ancillary. The graphic rendering of M. Bertin, with his frog-like hunch, his tenuous and warted fleshiness and his alert, intrepid eyes, could hardly be equalled, even by Bronzino, but the sleek-armed Vicomtesse d'Haussonville, a lustrous wisp of silk and fair hair, confirms that Ingres was also a magician of colour.

The exhibition, Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch, - a major survey of paintings and drawings by the nineteenth-century French artist, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - will continue at the National Gallery, London, until 25 April, after which it will travel to the National Gallery, Washington, and the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Like the rest of the National Gallery, the exhibition rooms are open every day (including Sunday) from 10.00 to 18.00, with an extension until 21.00 every Wednesday. Admission costs [pounds]6 ([pounds]4 after 19.00 on Wednesdays) with [pounds]4 concessions at all times. The telephone number for information is 0171.747.2885. The gallery deserves the highest praise for the liberality of its new opening hours.
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Title Annotation:Jean-Auguste-Dominic Ingres, National Gallery, London
Author:Bruce, Donald
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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