Where realism and dignity mingle

"Probity" is the word attached by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres to drawing, and in the useful, if rather overused, polarity of the "painterly" versus the "linear," there is no doubt at all that this 19th-century French drawing belongs to the latter. Linear drawing -- with its "probity," its descriptiveness and restraint, its concentration on essentials, its refusal to settle for suggestiveness or approximation, its disregard for passing effects -- is the root, stem, and flower of Ingres's art.

His contemporary "rival," Delacroix, quite frequently made exasperated verbal stabs at Ingres and his followers (though also on occasion allowing himself a grudging admiration for his fine qualities) in his journal. He wrote that Ingres "makes tracings of outward appearances." This unkind cut at first sight seems particularly justified in the case of Ingres's many portrait drawings in pencil: they seem unimaginative, quiet, and careful, almost to the point of dullness, the sitters themselves posed so that they look outwards unblinkingly -- unmoving, upright, and rather proper.

But a slightly better acquaintance with these portraits shows that snap judgments are the worst possible approach to this artist, whose incisive perceptions disclose areas of affection. Gentleness, subtle characterization, and sometimes an unflattering alertness to the less admirable side of his clients. He never for a minute appears trapped by the primary hazard of portraitists: how to be truthful without being hurtful. This is partly because his art is actually far from being a mere transcription of appearances. In the manner of his meticulous draughtmanship and the scrupulous quality of his chosen materials -- and even more in the neoclassical ethos that is the fashionable and aesthetic context of his vision -- it is clear that Ingres idealized, ordered, and ennobled his sitters. The artists, the persons of status and fashion, the diplomats, foreign visitors to Rome (where many of the portraits were drawn), are, with every nuance, every minute contour and subtle shading of the pencil, invested with ingres's perfectionism, his honest regard, his steady, unruffled sense of what is right. And if what his eyes told him about a face was too starkly opposed to his vision, the result was an-all-too-obvious lack of interest in the figure before him. Such people he drew evasively, almost deliberately failing to penetrate their mask, or simply presenting them as a symbol of their own self-importance. But almost always it appears that his frank gaze was met reciprocally by his sitters -- as in this portrait of Alexandre Lethiere, his young wife, and even younger baby daughter -- and there is a mingling of dignity and friendly realism in the result. His portraits are not solemn, for all their stateliness -- witness the wife's imminent smile and the child's happy playfulness.

Ingres's interest in and characterization of his sitters rarely ended with their faces. Sometimes their hands tell even more about them, and their dress and coiffure (which he obviously delighted in drawing, with surprising freedom and stylishness) are similarly depicted with an instinctual awareness of the way they can reveal an individual's -- modesty or pride, frivolity, sobriety, ebullience, or reticence.

"With a single look," wrote Agnes Mongan of Ingres's portrait drawings, in 1967," we can distinguish the English nobleman, the French aristocrat, the German of ambassadorial rank; the bourgeois, the artist, the scholar; the hard taskmaster, the generous spirit, the astute politician. . . . Within the restricted space of a simple white page there is the infinite variety of life itself."

And it doesn't take a much longer investigation to realize that all this human variety is amazingly dominated by the controlled, patient, unromantic -- but far from coldly analytical -- percipience of one artist. These people belong to Ingres, though they probably thought he belonged to them. It is how they looked in his eyes that matters, and it has to be admitted that he saw many of them as distinguished, handsome, beautiful, unpretentious, honest, worthy, and appealing. Ingres as a portraitist managed at the same time a kindly tolerance and an exacting penetration of character.

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