Ingres was one of the most famous painters in France during the first half of the 19th century. His father, a musician, sculptor and painter, permitted 16 year old Ingres to move to Paris and apprentice with Jacques-Louis David, the founder of Neoclassicism.
Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) stood at a crossroads in the history of painting. He ultimately became the last standard-bearer of French Classicism, as practiced by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) two centuries prior, in its rivalry with Romanticism, as defined by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and championed by Ingres’ rival, Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). Although Ingres ultimately failed in ousting Delacroix’s vision (Ingres sniped that Delacroix was “the apostle of the ugly”), Ingres is still considered one of France’s most famous painters, primarily due to his brilliant portraits.
Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres. Grande Odalisque, 1814. Oil on canvas, 35 7/8″ by 63″. Louvre, Paris.
Grand Odalisque was commissioned in 1813 by Caroline Murat, Napoleon’s sister and the queen of Naples. Although now considered one of Ingres’ most famous paintings, Grande Odalisque was reviled for these reasons when it was first exhibited at the Salon of 1819:
- its lack of anatomical reality;
- Ingres’ deviation from pure Neoclassicism;
- the Odalisque’s lack of mythological narrative; and
- her impossibly long neck and elbowless right arm.
Although its subject – the reclining female nude – harks back to ancient Greek, Ingres nods to contemporary themes in two ways:
- the odalisque (oda is a room in a Turkish harem) reflects the Romantic interest in all things exotic or foreign. According to Marilyn Stokstad, Grand Odalisque is one of the earliest examples of Orientalism in the history of painting, as the Western interest in the Muslims of North Africa and Near East was labelled. This “exoticism” is further conveyed with the concubine’s fan and turban, and with the incense burner and hash pipe.
- the concubine’s features, though, are pure European, reflecting tastes of the Parisian public (and prevalent Eurocentric attitudes).
Ingres claimed that his painting muse was Raphael, whom Ingres felt embodied the essence of Classicism. This influence is readily apparent in comparing Ingres’ Vow of Louis XIII (left) with Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (right).
Although these two famous paintings have similar compositions, Raphael’s Pope Julius II in the lower left corner has been replaced by Louis XIII. Instead of a religious painting depicting entry to
Above right: Raphael. Sistine Madonna, 1513. Oil on canvas, 8′ 8 1/2″ x 6′ 5″. Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.
Paradise, Ingres refashioned Raphael’s masterpiece into a contemporary political painting. Napoleon had fallen in 1815; his court painter, David, was in exile in Brussels; and a new generation of Romantic painters surged. When The Vow was exhibited at the Salon of 1824, critics claimed that Ingres was the savior of the Classical tradition.
Jean-August-Dominque Ingres. The Vow of Louis XIII, 1824. Montauban Cathedral, Montauban.
Although Ingres’ history paintings established his early reputation, it is his portraits and their mastery of line that cemented his tenure in the history of painting. Nowhere is this more apparent that in his masterful Portrait of Madame Ines Moitessier.
Ingres initially refused the 1844 request of Sigisbert Moitessier to paint a portrait of his wife but recanted after meeting her. Seven years later, though, Ingres hadn’t finished this initial portrait and painted a standing portrait (right) instead.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Madame Moitessier, 1851. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Ingres completed the seated portrait in 1856 after numerous re-workings. As in many of his portraits, he melded the actual with the ideal.
Here (below left), Madame Moitessier is an earth-bound goddess, with flawlessly smooth skin, sensual arms and shoulders, and a Raphaelesque face. The complexity of the composition – with the richly detailed fabric, the fan of peacock feathers, the dog-topped urn – is successful due to Ingres’ precision with texture and shape.
Madame’s pose with her hand touching her cheek is likely derived from an ancient Roman fresco in Herculaneum, while the profile (impossibly) reflected is Greek.
Portrait of Madame Moitessier, though, is riveting because she nonchalantly meets the viewer’s gaze, as if she, too, is assessing a painting.
In my mind, this portrait alone secures Ingres’ status among the most famous painters. At the least, Portrait of Madame Ines Moitessier was worth the wait!
Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres. Portrait of Madame Ines Moitessier, 1856. Oil on canvas, 47 1/4″ by 36 2/4″. National Gallery, London
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