Ingres's portraits unveil history and celebrity

Imagine an artistic career spanning the revolution that ended the French monarchy, the absolute rule of Napoleon, his exile, the Second Empire of Napoleon's nephew, the invention of the steam engine, Darwin, Karl Marx, and the birth of a new class of incredibly wealthy captains of industry.

Jean Dominique Ingres lived through and captured those times with hundreds of portrait commissions recording the faces, costumes, and subtle hierarchies. The dyed-in-the-wool academic painter and classicist's mature years spanned 1800 to 1867.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is hosting, through Aug. 22, a sumptuous show, "Portraits by Ingres: Images of an Epoch," 40 jaw-dropping portraits and about 60 equally amazing graphite drawings. The exhibit then will travel to the National Gallery in London, and finally to the Metropolitan Museum in New York next year.

The exhibition catalog deals candidly with the implications of such a one-sided picture of privilege. What is fascinating is that Ingres's generation included Beethoven and Lord Byron; it was an era when Europe, disillusioned with war and absolutism, embraced personal expression, creative license, and the exotic and fantastic. But Ingres would have none of it. "Let me hear no more of that absurd maxim that we need the new ... have the passions of the human heart changed since Homer?" he said.

Ingres was an impeccable draftsman, the poster boy for clean, clear images that reflect the spirit of classical Greece. But the gorgeous portraits, though highly idealized (there is not a mole or flaw to be found), don't adhere to the anatomical accuracy we associate with classical art.

Instead, Ingres emphasized rigorous execution and beautiful descriptive line found in Greek vase painting. The other part of classicism that seems to have appealed to him was that there is a perfect tidy world out there if you are learned and landed enough to appreciate it. Thus the wise and wealthy flocked to him.

Portraits in this exhibit include a circumspect Napoleon as first consul, when he proclaims France a republic; you can almost feel the red velvet. When he declares himself emperor, Ingres paints him in full pomp and regalia. A great sketch of the violinist Paganini and Ingres's most famous portrait, the corpulent, powerful newspaper tycoon Louis Francois Bertin, are also highlights. But the real eye-catchers are the daughters, wives, and sisters of Bertin, who come alive in silks, taffetas, jewels, and ribbons.

The pomp is best captured in the famous image of the Princesse de Broglie, who wears an ice-blue gown set against the ivory of her skin and her pearls. Feminists will be correct in saying that Ingres's women are imagined by and for men. But on closer look one can see women leaning forward, looking assured, with a casual hand to the face. Though often modeled from classical sources, these women in Ingres's hands have a relaxed warmth: They are somehow freer than the women before them and may be, despite their expensive trappings, the unwitting next step toward Manet's audacious urban girls and suffrage.

Ingres wanted to be remembered for his grand allegorical works and complained about the tedious portraiture that kept him from them. Yet when we look at his portraits next his large academic paintings filled with mythology, it is the portraits that touch us. They play to our love of history and the cult of personality. These are the People magazine photos of their day.

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