The history of a great portrait
New York — THE idea was an intriguing one: to assemble an exhibition documenting the evolution and history of a single major portrait, with particular emphasis on its subject's identity, personality, and accomplishments; the artist's preliminary sketches and studies; and everything in the way of d'ecor, accessories, and costumes visible in the picture. By selecting Ingres's painting of the ``Comtesse d'Haussonville,'' the Frick Collection here made an ideal choice for the centerpiece of just such an exhibition. Not only is this exquisitely painted study of an elegant young woman one of the finest portraits of the 19th century, the circumstances surrounding its planning and execution are sufficiently documented to provide more than enough primary source material for an excellent show of this sort.
To begin with, there is the portrait itself, which is on view in the East Gallery, one floor above the exhibition proper (in the lower-level galleries). Although this beautiful work is no stranger to regular visitors to the Frick, it will, because of its recent cleaning, provide a few modest surprises, even to those who know it best, in the way of richer luminosity, a more convincing illusion of depth, and greater clarity of detail.
It's so stunning, so ``perfect'' a work, in fact, that one could easily hesitate about viewing the rest of the exhibition -- even if one knew that it contained several of Ingres's superb drawings, many fascinating items pertaining to the life and creative activities of the Comtesse, and some of the actual objects depicted in the painting. Why, one might ask, dilute the portrait's powerful effect by looking at some lesser and more mundane objects -- especially if most possess little if any aesthetic meri t?
The answer lies in the richness and diversity of these objects, and in how successfully they help the viewer to gain an insight into both the artist's working methods and the Comtesse's social and intellectual life. Fifteen of the 16 known studies for the portrait are on view, as well as the preliminary oil sketch that Ingres abandoned, and unpublished correspondence concerning the picture's history. Included among these studies are a few of Ingres's most sensitive drawings, ranging from very small and tentative ``thumbnail'' sketches to careful renderings of the full figure and costume and anatomical details. These, in themselves, make the show worthwhile, and yet they barely scratch the surface of the many interesting to fascinating -- if often much less artistically rewarding -- items on display.
Those pertaining to the Comtesse are particularly intriguing. There are portraits of her by other artists; painted likenesses and photographs of her parents and husband; all her known unpublished literary manuscripts, as well as author's copies of her published works; an album of her watercolors; a copy of her will; and other memorabilia. In addition, elements of the boudoir in which she was depicted have been re-created, including an upholstered fireplace mounted with period candle-sconces and drapery tieback rosettes. All the original porcelains Ingres represented on the mantel in the portrait are reunited, and they are placed among contemporary opera glasses, visiting cards, clothing, and jewelry similar to those worn by the Comtesse, and china and silver with the family arms.
But that's not all. The portrait's history is documented by exhibition catalogs, books, photographs, and reproductive prints. A full-scale copy of the painting made in 1882 by Ingres's pupil Raymond Balze hangs at the show's entrance, and works by other painters -- including Degas and Vuillard -- that share the portrait's mirror iconography and meditative pose, are included for comparison.
We get, in fact, about as thorough and detailed an accounting of everything surrounding the creation of a single major work of art as has ever been assembled. And for that we should be grateful, for it is a truly engaging and informative exhibit. And yet, what do we gain from it in strictly artistic terms? Not a great deal, even taking Ingres's studies and the handful of other pictures into account. Wouldn't it have been more effective to have grouped those studies and anything else of genuine artistic merit with the portrait, and to have entirely given over the lower-level galleries to the more purely illustrative material? Why this casual intermingling of superb art and modest artifacts in one area of the building, while the exhibition's centerpiece and raison d'^etre hangs among other masterpieces an entire floor and several hundred feet away?
Art, after all, is one thing, research material -- no matter how fascinating or valuable -- is another. Mixing the two is a tricky business that should not be attempted lightly, especially by a museum that is world famous for excluding almost everything from its walls that is not absolutely first rate.
I recommend this exhibition, but only if it is treated as two shows. Visit and absorb the portrait first, and then return to it for a final viewing after a leisurely examination of the material in the lower galleries. At least that way, art will dominate whatever memories you take with you. At the Frick Collection through Feb. 16.