Sunday, 20 September 2009





The great Ingres exhibition now at the Louvre is one of those big, swagger events that the French arts bureaucracy continues to do very well, even at a time when the cultural supremacy of Paris has long vanished. It tells you almost everything you might want to know about the artist, and even a bit more. What it doesn’t do is to solve the mystery of Ingres’ personality – he was a supreme bourgeois who also succeeded in being one of the supreme rebels pf 19th century art – or indeed the art of any other period one might care to name. Like Caravaggio, his opposite in most respects, he is historically recalcitrant, By which I mean that he seems eternally of the present moment, forever ready to shock, either in one way or in another. He never takes quite the direction one expects.


Before describing the exhibition, it is worth recalling one or two anecdotes about the artist. This is Ingres speaking to one of his students: “You’ve studied anatomy? Oh yes!  Ah well! And now you see what this horrible science leads to! I cannot speak of it without disgust. If I had had to learn anatomy – yes, I, my dear sirs, I would never have become a painter. Copy nature quite simply and naively, and you are already on the road to something.”


And this is Ingres standing in a Paris street, as described by one of his contemporaries:  “[He] stopped on the corner of the rue d’Assas and the rue Vavin. He watched transfixed the motions of a large brush, dipped in a brownish colour, which a house-painter was moving, with regular and rhythmic gestures, across the wooden façade of a grocer’s shop. ‘Cher maître, what are you doing here?’ asked a colleague…who happened to be passing, and who was intrigued by what he saw. Ingres’s only response was ti point to the workman. “Look at him,’ he said. See how admirable he is – he is taking up just what is needed.’”


These two related stories seem to me to sum up the essence of Ingres’s art – a deliberate naiveté of vision, combined with the utmost economy of means. To this one may add a c remark that Ingres made to his great admirer Degas: “The muscles – those are my friends, but I have forgotten their names.”


When one keeps these snippets on information in mind, it is not surprising to hear that Ingres, the arch Neo-classicist, was often described by contemporary critics as “gothic”, using this adjective in no very complimentary sense. Like the Flemish artists of the 15th century, he was determined to see things in exactly his own way.


As the Louvre exhibition shows, Ingres applied his stubbornly personal vision to quite a wide variety of subject matter. There are, for example, the great neo-classical machines, such as Apotheosis of Homer, which is based more directly on Raphael’s frescos in the Vatican stanze, and on an altarpiece by Fra Angelico, than it is on anything directly Greek. There are the portraits, both drawn and painted. There are superb erotic paintings featuring female nudes, chief among them La Grande Odalisque and Le Bain Turc, both with oriental themes. In addition there are paintings which current taste prefers to neglect, or which it finds embarrassing. In the first of these categories one can place the artist’s little historical genre scenes, such as Henry IV Receiving the Spanish Ambassador, which are essentially Greuze in fancy dress. In the second are the artist’s quite numerous religious works – the best-known is The Vow of Louis XIII, painted for the cathedral at Montauban, but more typical are bust length images of the Virgin, with lips slightly pursed, and eyes modestly downcast. These reflect aspects of the 19th century religious revival that modern society finds it hard to deal with, though juxtaposing them with the nudes does produce an undeniable frisson.


For most visitors to the show, the real point will be the portraits. Ingres increasingly hated having to paint these, but it is interesting to see how they evolve. The earliest are stripped down likenesses of the companions of his youth, such as the sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini. These are followed by others painted in Rome, mostly of French functionaries who played a role in the French occupation of Italy. Interspersed with these are grander subjects – Napoleon as First Consul, then enthroned in Byzantine splendour, as Emperor; Napoleon’s sister, Caroline Murat, as Queen of Naples, with Vesuvius smoking in the background.


In later years, there are increasingly imposing likenesses of leading figures from the time of the July Monarchy and Napoleon III’s Second Empire. One of the great visual coups of the show is a wall hung with superb images of Parisian society beauties – Vicomtesse d’Haussonville, Baronne James de Rothschild, Mme. Moitessier, Princesse Albert de Broglie. These are like nothing else of their sort in art – not even Van Dyck can rival them in terms of elegance, or skill in rendering skin tones and sumptuous materials. Every time one looks at them, however, one is aware of Ingres’ status as an outsider. He does not identify himself socially with his sitters, as Van Dyck undoubtedly did. This is also true of the much more numerous portrait drawings – a specialty that Ingres developed when he needed make a living in Italy. These, of their sort, have never been bettered – they are a perfect blend of truth, flattery and informality, The more elaborate examples – those with two, three or even more figures – are, despite their small scale, more ambitious in terms of composition that the painted portraits. In fact the only painted ‘Ingres’ portrait group of this sort is not by the master. It is The Family Bellelli, an early masterpiece by Degas.


Ingres, like most successful portraitists, hated the trade. Only occasionally did he offer a glimpse of his private self, as he did in a series of touching drawings of his first wife Madeleine – the exhibition contains nine examples, ranging in date from 1814 to 1841. The images show his touching affection for her, though she was disliked by many of his acquaintances, one of whom described her in a letter to a mutual friend as “a viper of the worst sort.”


However, an even more private Ingres  emerges in his paintings of the female nude, which are the most sensual things of their kind ever committed to canvas. The perfect bourgeois is also the greatest of pornographers.


Ingres, Musée du Louvre, until 16 May 2006






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