PRINT February 1968

Ingres Centennial in Paris

“Talent avare, cruel, colereux, et souffrant, mélange singulier de qualités contraires, toutes mises au profit de la nature, et dont I’étrangeté n’est pas un des moindres charmes;—flamand dans l’execution, individualite et naturaliste dans le dessin, antique par ses sympathies et idéaliste par raison.”
—Baudelaire, Salon de 1846

IN THE THIRD MAJOR EXHIBITION of Ingres’s work this year, the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs has filled a substantial part of the Petit Palais with a group of paintings and drawings, representing all phases of the artist’s long, productive career. Generally speaking, the exhibition brings together an excellent selection of works and offers them in what is certainly the best installation which the French have yet managed for a major retrospective of this sort. Despite large crowds, both paintings and drawings are easily visible, carefully spaced and well lighted. The installation is a distinct improvement over that provided for the Delacroix centennial of 1963 and should serve as a model for similar undertakings by the French in years to come.

The catalog which accompanies the exhibition is useful, but something less than a major addition to Ingres criticism or scholarship. Each painting and drawing receives a complete scholarly entry, but the catalog lacks a broad descriptive essay. In place of a single essay are three short sections, the first two providing brief discussions of Ingres and His Method (Daniel Ternois) and Ingres as a Portrait Draftsman (Hans Naef), and a third outlining Ingres’s biography year by year (Françoise Nora). While one may argue that this sort of “team” approach broadens the apparent focus of a catalog, it can also be said that a good catalog, like a good book, provides the arena for a complete, if partisan, presentation of views by one individual. Any one of the three contributors might have been called upon to deliver a major essay, sufficient in length to permit a thorough presentation of Ingres’s work, seen through the eyes of a sensitive scholar. As it stands, the catalog represents all that is weakest in current art historical writing: absurd division of labor, small areas of interest and competence, and blind professional commitment to accepted methods (usually one per art historian) of investigation.

Surely no exhibition in recent memory has provided so much material for critical evaluation or reevaluation. Seen in quantity Ingres’s works are perhaps even more challenging today than they were to Baudelaire when he confronted them in 1846. To study the exhibition at length (and to see it in conjunction with the simultaneous Girodet show in Montargis) forces one to recognize the tenuous intellectual hold which he exercises on neo-classical painting in general. For this reason, more than any other, one resents the sketchy nature of the Ingres catalog. Someone should have been made to face both the qualities and the problems head on, but instead, all have chosen to, so to speak, sit this one out while waiting for Prof. Rosenblum’s forthcoming book on Ingres. This, presumably, will settle all the questions and set the record straight.

Perhaps the best feature of the current exhibition is the balanced presentation of paintings and drawings. It is always tempting to deal with Ingres as a draftsman pure and simple, thus avoiding many of the more problematic (and challenging) aspects of his art. An exhibition earlier this year at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, did in fact present Ingres in this fashion. But while he was perhaps the most fluent and original draftsman French art ever produced, Ingres’s ambitions centered upon projects for major paintings, and the current exhibition offers both portraits and “histoires.” This is certainly the sort of exhibition Ingres would have wanted for himself. As the well known anecdote goes, Ingres corrected an Englishman who called upon him in Rome and referred to him as a “man who drew portraits” by saying to the contrary that he was “un peintre.”

Viewing Ingres as a complete artist, the “mélange singulier de qualitiés contraires,” one is faced with a truly puzzling quantity. Seen alongside the works of David, Goya, and even Delacroix, Ingres’s pictures lack style in the broadest sense of that term. That is to say that, while elements of technique, certain preferred modes of composition and figural conception, and certain types of subject matter persist from the beginning to the end of his career, Ingres never seems to possess a dependable intellectual mechanism, which he can rely on to bring parts into balance and assure success in one picture after another. This is particularly true in his non-portrait subjects. In his portraits he works on firm and generally consistent ground, benefiting from fluency which he attains at an early date in portrait drawings and which he carries directly into painted portraiture.

As a portraitist Ingres’s naturalism is as sensitive and flexible as it is unselfconscious. Portraiture is a world Ingres understands. Unlike Delacroix, Ingres is sensitive to the personalities of people, and as subjects they put him at ease, particularly if they are women. He rarely seems to struggle to establish the priorities of his effects as he draws his portrait subjects, and he rarely has difficulty with his color.

A degree of development is evident in his portraiture as it appears towards the beginning and end of his career. In the earlier portraits, both drawn and painted, the character of Ingres’s line is lace-like, and often forced through elaborations. Nevertheless, these portraits seem to dissolve the page upon which they sit in a way which is truly without precedent. This dissolution is accomplished without surrendering either the drawing to the page or the page to the drawing. The effect of dissolution results from Ingres’s almost unbelievable ability to inflect through drawing both the volume of figures and the space they inhabit with the white of his paper and the selective emphasis of his line. He rarely needs to model with light and dark, and the smallest shift in the character of his drawing can project both the form and the personality of one sitter after another.

In his later portrait drawings the qualities are very much the same, but the line is both more abbreviated and more certain. It never risks elaboration, but it never loses elegance and life. Together with the greater conciseness of the later portrait drawings is an increase in the intimacy established between Ingres and his subject.

The progress of this increasing intimacy is most evident in the painted portraits. Looking, for example, at the Mlle. Rivière of 1805, it is clear that Ingres’s relationship with the subject is formal in every respect. The image is elegant, but cold and aloof, towering over the viewer and set against a rigid landscape backdrop. By 1826 and the Mme. Marcotte de Sainte Marie Ingres’s view has softened. He seems to converse with the figure in a domestic setting which, although unspecific, is shared by subject and artist alike. The subject’s costume and setting are perceived more sensuously, and the image in general is less hard and abstract. It is, however, still subject to firmness and definition of both color and drawing. The Mme. Marcotte is a more romantic image than the Mlle. Rivière, but its romanticism is achieved within the context of Ingres’s conception of form and without the devices of romantic painting in general. For the Mme. Moitessier of 1856 the closeness of psychological contact between painter and subject is made even more explicit, so much so that Ingres seems to recoil somewhat from his accomplishment. Two devices, the mirror and the fresh immediacy of the subject’s gown, which literally floods the foreground of the picture, draw the painter and the spectator alike into the physical and psychological presence of the subject. The setting, the room to be more precise, engulfs the spectator. The mirror, because of its closeness and size, completes the space behind the spectator and, in effect, locks him in an intensely close dialogue with the subject. Degas will struggle for thirty years to attain a realist presence of this sort, and Manet will return to the device of the large mirror to compress the dialogue between the spectator and the young bar-maid of the Folies-Bergère. Ingres, however, draws back from his penultimate realist accomplishment by rounding out (classicizing) the arms and face of his subject, simplifying her profile in the mirror, and in general trying to cool Ingres, Sell Portrait off the impact of the confrontation.

During the course of his sixty years as a portrait painter Ingres traversed and advanced the history of portraiture. His portraits represent the most accessible part of his legacy as an artist. As a portraitist he produced a succession of masterpieces and he did so without the outside assists of British painting (in the 1820s) and Spanish painting (after 1838) that inspired and in some cases propped up so many of his compatriots. A fluent technique of linear drawing and one which never rested on its own facility, a taste for, rather than a belief in, color (gleaned from Flemish and early 16th century Italian sources), an ease and excitement in the presence of real people, a dedication to working selectively but directly from nature—all of this was more than enough to carry him as a portraitist, but it was not enough to carry him or anyone else as a “peintre d’histoire.” For that he needed a style, one which he could formulate according to his own interests and principles, and one in which he could believe. There is a moving testimony to his own honesty and tough-mindedness in the fact that he refused to adopt a style which he had not arrived at himself. Like his great German contemporary, Runge, he preferred to let contradictions stand if he believed in each contradictory part. He could not force himself to work in an archaic mode (even Raphael’s) although he was frequently tempted. As a result his large pictures lack the cold fineness of Nazarene painting but they project a self-conviction which, despite its internal conflicts, yields results of surprising quality.

Ingres entered the mainstream of French painting at a problematic moment. He studied with David at a time when the latter’s Spartan achievements of the 1780s were giving way to the melodramatic and frequently erotic conceptions of Gerard and Girodet on the one hand, and to the neo-baroque colorism of Gros on the other. Whatever unity had existed in neo-classical painting (in the 1780s) was quickly evaporating. The most important guidance Ingres received from David centered on questions of naturalism, geometrical organization, and the importance of working from the model. This guidance protected Ingres from the mannerisms that undermined so many of Girodet’s efforts, but it did not provide any real basis for a grand style in the traditional sense. Ingres never learned (or perhaps never accepted) David’s methods of terse, theatrical arrangement and controlled figural rhetoric. He had, in fact, almost no sense of theater, and for a neo-classical painter of any persuasion or nationality this predicated difficulties.

In contrast to Ingres, Gros, Gericault, Girodet and even early Delacroix inherited something of David’s sensitivity to heroic figures operating on limited stage space. This shared sensitivity provides a degree of continuity in French painting from the early 1780s to about 1830, despite obvious modifications in smaller points of style. The source for this sensitivity can be traced back even farther to the historical subjects of Greuze from the late 1760s. If one moves back to that point in neo-classical painting it is possible to suggest what it was that Ingres saw as an alternative to David’s style. This alternative appears in the work of Vien, David’s teacher and a contemporary of Greuze. It is continued and developed by the Englishman, Flaxman, whom Ingres met in Paris in 1801. The particular sort of neo-classical style developed by Vien and Flaxman is domestic rather than theatrical in emphasis, elegant rather than rhetorical in conception. It appears in full bloom in Ingres’s Prix de Rome piece of 1801, The Ambassadors of Agamemnon. This painting, for all of its Davidian props, sacrifices theatrical discourse and gesture in favor of gentle decorative arrangement and a low-keyed conversational interaction between figures. Having painted this picture Ingres is, so to speak, on his own in terms of style. He has stepped outside the tradition into which he was born, and for the rest of his life he will struggle to justify what he has done.

The sub tradition of Vien and Flaxman supports Ingres in his “histoires” of moderate size. In these Ingres seems comfortable working with small units of design which are set off crisply by sharp accents of strong color. His pictorial organization is generally lateral in emphasis (recalling Flaxman) but individual units of form achieve an increasingly Raphaelesque amplitude. The longer Ingres works in Italy (Rome and Florence) the more he amplifies his broader rhythms of line in response to Raphael and Titian.

For his larger “histoires” Ingres’s supports are less predictable and generally less reliable. It is in these pictures that the absence of style and the “mélange” of his art becomes forcefully apparent. One need only look at his portrait of Napoleon as Emperor (1806) to realize the degree of wildness which can enter his conceptions. This painting, despite its hard Davidian surface and its evident Roman imagery, is more icon than portrait. The combination of the viewpoint, the knotted angularities of drapery and the flat framing of the subject’s face, conveys the icon of a Romanesque Christ sitting in Last Judgment. The iconic rather than dramatic qualities of the image are particularly clear when it is seen alongside Girodet’s imperial portrait of 1812 where Davidian space and gesture still prevail.

This “gothic” side of Ingres’s arsenal for “histoires” continues directly into his Jupiter and Thetis of 1811, where the pose of Napoleon is virtually replicated in the figure of Jupiter. It assumes rather bizarre tactile associations as Ingres begins to play the metallic hardness of “gothic” drapery against the softness of human flesh—a contrast re-enforced by oppositions of abrupt and broad intervals of line.

Along with this “gothic” manner and quickly taking precedence over it is the more Italianate conception of form which Ingres first achieves in the Bather of Valpinçon, finished in Rome in 1808. Working with a subject which yields more formal than narrative interest, Ingres is able to focus his attention on the establishment of what one might call a pictorial philosophy, as distinct from a style in the broadest sense. That is to say, Ingres finds in the traditional nude a way of eliciting his own unique sort of pictorial language. This language is governed first of all by geometry in the best Davidian manner, but its sense of relief is more subtle—the product of minimum modeling and maximum reliance on the spatial and volumetric pulse of contour as it yields to the weight of live flesh. Ingres succeeds in the Bather in balancing out a firm lateral organization established by his setting and a consistent plasticity within the figure. The posture of his figure and the breadth of the contour which contains it reflect this balance, while the crispness of smaller units of drawing and coloration keep the balance from becoming academic. Needless to say the dramatic potential contained within the pictorial philosophy which the Bather states is almost nil. But the Bather and even more directly the female nude stands as a module of dependable quality against which the success of Ingres’s later “histoires” can be judged.

By the end of the first decade of the 19th century, Ingres had in hand three fragments that would be arranged and re-arranged in various ways as a substitute for style of any integrated sort. He had the delicate, laterally conceived small interval classicism of Vien and Flaxman. He. had the hieratic linear and tactile excitement of his “gothic” manner, and he had the ample, effortless plasticity of his Bather. Each of these fragments could feed on Flemish and Italian sources of one type or another, but more important each could find some parallel in the work of Raphael. For that reason, more than any other, Raphael remained the brightest star in Ingres’s galaxy.

These fragments which Ingres carried into his “histoires” and the forced, unconcealed ways in which they were combined produced the cognitive difficulties which Baudelaire had with Ingres’s larger canvases. As Baudelaire rightly noted, Ingres is not simple and direct in his methods of preparing major paintings. Instead he uses what Baudelaire terms “successive methods,” or, as suggested above, different fragments in combination. Ingres differs from Delacroix in the sense that he lets his fragments (or “successive methods”) stand undisguised. Delacroix, on the other hand, can be equally devious in his combinations of sources, but he is better able to conceal any resulting conflicts under a surface of vigorous brushwork and complicated passages of color.

Looking across the spectrum of Ingres’s larger works it is possible to outline a few of the ways in which he proceeds. First of all his odalisques tend to continue and rephrase the most successful qualities of the Bather, while becoming increasingly involved in arabesque-like convolutions of line. His two most successful and lucid “histoires,” The Vow of Louis XIII (1824) and the Martyrdom of St. Symphorien (1834) enlarge and monumentalize figural types reminiscent of the early Agamemnon, but based on 16th-century Italian sources.

Probably the most interesting and revealing of the larger pictures are the Roger Delivering Angelica of 1819 and the late Turkish Bath of 1862. The Roger is a splendid demonstration of Ingres’s method of working combinations. The figure of Angelica is developed in a large oil study which continues many of the qualities of the early Bather. The geometrical axis of the figure is strong, and around it flesh passages swell toward broad contours. When the figure appears in the final canvas it is set against cold, barren rocks and pierced visually by the lance which the spiny, gothicized image of Roger drives into the throat of the equally gothicized monster. There is no atmospheric color development to bridge the stylistic gap between the image of combatants and that of Angelica. Instead there is a drama of formal oppositions—more violent than that of the Jupiter and Thetis and presenting in capsule form Ingres’s alternative to Davidian theatricality.

The late Turkish Bath is another story altogether. This painting is nothing less than a “grosse fuge” on the theme of the Bather of Valpinçon—that image which more than any other conveyed the most sublime and unproblematic statement of Ingres’s pictorial philosophy. The figure of the Bather re-appears, seated in the foreground of the bath. She is the formal core of the picture; she is the source from which each secondary statement, each nude posed differently, derives. Throughout the picture at larger or smaller intervals Ingres phrases and phrases again that eloquent tension that occurs between broad figural contours and the plastic weight of flesh contained within them. Gone is the rectilinear geometry of the earlier Bather. Ingres now accepts willingly the multiplication of curvilinear parts which spread outward from the quoted figure of the bather and finally conclude in the perfect circle of the format which contains the picture.

Like the late quartets of Beethoven, the Turkish Bath is too abstract and too precocious an offering to be accepted and developed directly. Certain of Degas’s bather subjects from the 1880s seem to recognize similar values and to project related concerns, but it is not until Matisse’s nudes (in painting and sculpture) of 1905–1910 that the intensity of Ingres’s particular development of contour and plasticity reappears.

By presenting Ingres’s work across the board, mixing the easily accessible qualities of the portraits with the more difficult pleasures of the “histoires,” the centennial exhibition has accomplished its program magnificently. Ingres’s stature is maintained by the selection of works shown, but more important, an artistic personality with all of its complexities and contradictions manages to emerge.

Kermit Champa